Kitchener-Waterloo·Analysis

Guelph community energy initiative: real life or fantasy?

Local leaders and environmental advocates seem to agree Guelph's community energy initiative needs to be updated to show where money is being spent and what the city is getting out of it.

Mayor's 'fantasy' comment has some concerned for the future of the green strategy

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently toured the Polycon Industries auto parts plant in Guelph. The plant recently completed work on a combined heat and power system to generate electricity for the plant. The system traps heat from natural gas generators and uses it to power the plant's water system. (MP Lloyd Longfield/Twitter)

Local energy conservation advocates say the City of Guelph needs to remain a leader when it comes to green projects, and that includes keeping the community energy initiative (CEI).

The future of the initiative was questioned following comments by Mayor Cam Guthrie that the green policy was not a vision for the city but rather a "fantasy."

"The community energy initiative is almost 10 years old now and technology has changed, policy has changed, and there's opportunity for us to add a huge amount of value. We need to do a proper evaluation," said Evan Ferrari, executive director at Emerge Guelph.

But there are concerns the goals of the project might be in jeopardy.

Ferrari has taken to social media calling on Guelph residents to speak to their councillors to ensure the community energy initiative moves forward. He doesn't want to see the city abandon the 30-year plan that guides Guelph's energy planning.

"We need to move ahead with a public process to update the CEI. It's a pretty simple thing to do," Ferrari said.

Initiative 'due to be updated'

The CEI had three main goals when it was implemented in 2007:

  • Use less energy by 2032 than it did in 2007.
  • Consume less energy per capita than comparable Canadian cities.
  • Produce less greenhouse gas per capita than the global average.

But while city money has gone into energy initiatives, councillors have argued there is a lack of transparency on how the money is being spent and what good it does the city.

A city staff report to be debated Monday night suggests there is a lot of work to be done. Staff are requesting $150,000 to do a comprehensive update of the CEI.

In 2007 Guelph launched its community energy initiative, but now that it's a decade old the critics charge that there's not enough transparency. (Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)

The report notes Guelph's CEI was a game-changer when it was introduced.

"Guelph has established a reputation as a leader in community energy planning," the report states. "Dozens of Ontario and Canadian cities have created, or are creating, community energy plans."

But with the 10 year anniversary of the plan, the CEI "is due to be updated."

Staff said the lack of transparency is a known issue, but the problem has been that reports on CEI programs and activities come from third-party sources.

"The proposed CEI update will focus heavily on developing reporting schemes that are based on clearly defined metrics," the staff report reads.

Councillors' support, concern

The debate over how to handle moving forward with the initiative is also taking place online.

In a recent blog post, Ward 2 Coun. James Gordon wrote that the CEI is a "no-brainer."

"I totally agree that any city project needs to be fully accountable and transparent, and accountability is built in to the initiative's update," Gordon wrote on April 20.

"What worries me is that while calling the plan a 'fantasy' we are denying the reality: That without a comprehensive vision, a map for our future energy management, we will have no future."

I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with what I ... observe to be a lack of transparency surrounding certain capital intensive projects.- Ward 1 Coun. Dan Gibson

In February, Ward 1 Coun. Dan Gibson put forth a motion to have the city's internal auditor investigate large capital CEI projects. The motion failed.

"Despite some of my initial optimism, over the past number of months I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with what I – and many in the community – observe to be a lack of transparency surrounding certain capital intensive projects," Gibson wrote in a March 23 post.

He added that he was specifically concerned about the governance, cost and decision-making processes with the projects dating back to June 2010.

"To be clear this is not about 'killing the CEI,' which is sadly, a predictable narrative," Gibson wrote. "This is about transparency. It is about disclosing the true cost of capital projects to Guelph residents and ensuring the prosperity of our community."

Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie. (abetterguelph.ca)

Mayor Cam Guthrie reportedly referred to the CEI as "fantasy. Not vision. Fantasy" in a meeting April 7.

In a Facebook post on April 8, Guthrie posted a link to a Guelph Today news article quoting that. "Sidewalks fixed and maintained sports fields are important to our community, too. This is about balance," he reacted in the post.

The minutes from the April 7 governance meeting – which have not been approved by council – show Guthrie voted in favour of directing staff to provide a stand-alone, detailed formal report on the progress of the CEI from its inception in April 2007 to date, to be reported back to council before April 2017.

As well, Guthrie voted in favour of establishing a CEI update process and allowing staff to seek out funding options to cover the costs of preparing the report.

Guthrie did not respond to CBC News' requests for comment on the CEI.

CEI part of Guelph's competitive advantage

Businesses in Guelph are interested in seeing the city refocus the initiative, Chamber of Commerce CEO Kithio Mwanzia said.

"The community at large has always viewed it as a part of Guelph's competitive advantage," he said, but added the project hasn't necessarily been perfect.

Guelph has a huge opportunity at this point to implement what they said they were going to implement and they can be true leaders.- Jennifer Weatherstone, Reid's Heritage Homes

"Being a first mover on things is never easy and particularly being a first mover on something energy related. Guelph was a first mover on this some years ago and there's value to that, but there's also challenges..."

Mwanzia said Monday's meeting will focus on the need for a community-wide consultation process into the CEI.

"Certainly from the perspective of the Chamber of Commerce, we would be very interested in seeing both a qualitative and quantitative community consultation … so we know where we are based on the metrics, that we aren't being speculative in our commentary and that we're able to actually continue to leverage this as a competitive advantage," he said.

Community partner input needed

Jennifer Weatherstone, director of innovation for Reid's Heritage Homes, said if Guelph wants to move forward and revamp the CEI, it needs to include community partners.

Like other local home builders, Reid's Heritage Homes has been focusing on building net zero homes. They want to work with other builders to create a whole community of net zero homes as part of the Guelph Innovation District on the lands near the old reformatory on York Road.

But when they've approached the city, they were met with apparent disinterest.

Reid's Heritage Homes has recently sold four net zero homes in Guelph. (Reid's heritage Homes)

"There was really no drive from the City of Guelph or input," she said. "There is nothing to date that I'm aware of that supports building high-performance homes, or energy conservation within home building."

She said net zero homes – which means the amount of energy used by the home is equal to the amount created by the home  –  are being built now and aren't some far-off dream. But homeowners may need help.

"Even if you don't want to give the builder money to push down to the homebuyer to make these homes more affordable, then give the buyers a property tax incentive or reduction" she said. "Guelph has a huge opportunity at this point to implement what they said they were going to implement and they can be true leaders."

Results no fantasy

For Ferrari, the way forward is simple: The CEI needs to be updated and the community needs to be involved.

He admitted there is a need for transparency, but questioned how anyone could say they can't see the results.

"Anyone in council is well aware of the benefits that have been out there," he said.

Ferrari said Guelph generates 50 per cent more electricity during peak hours locally than other similar-sized communities, and that has resulted in tens of millions of dollars in local capital investment and millions of dollars that stay within the city.

"These systems and that money are going to local businesses, individuals, co-ops, institutions," he said. "I'm curious how any of that looks like fantasy to anyone."

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