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Communities Taking Charge of Energy Solutions

November 12, 2020  |  Podcast

As the electricity sector and technology evolves, communities have more local energy resource options that can help meet their electricity needs. An ongoing dialogue serves to build an understanding of how energy planning happens and provides opportunities for local input - laying the foundation for successful implementation.

In this episode, Terry Young, IESO Interim CEO, interviews Matthew Day, Program Manager at WR Community Energy and Tonja Leach, Executive Director of QUEST. They discuss the changes in the energy sector, especially how community preferences such as energy transition and electrification have gained in importance, and what is needed to keep the progress going.

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Podcast Transcript

Terry Young (00:09):

Hello everyone. And thanks for tuning into the IESO's Powering Tomorrow podcast. My name is Terry Young. In each episode, we sit down with our guests to get their perspective on the opportunities and challenges, power grids are facing in the midst of the rapid transformation happening in the industry. We'll also learn more about some of the innovative ideas or concepts helping to shape the future of the electricity system.

Terry Young (00:43):

You know, hearing from and considering input from our stakeholders is one of my most important responsibilities at the IESO. Stakeholder perspective is a critical part of the decision-making process as we build a reliable, sustainable, and efficient electricity system that addresses the needs of Ontarians. As the electricity sector has evolved, community engagement has become particularly important. An ongoing dialogue serves to build an understanding of how energy planning happens and provides opportunities for local input laying the foundation for successful implementation. And as technology has evolved such as energy efficiency, energy storage, demand, response to name a few emerging technologies, it's giving communities more choice in how they can help meet their energy needs. In the past, I've traveled across the province to meet as many stakeholders as I could in person. More recently with the pandemic, I've had the opportunity to continue to hear from you via the help of technology, either through our monthly public stakeholder meetings, one-on-one discussions with municipalities and others, or through this podcast.

Terry Young (01:50):

I welcome any thoughts you have after listening to this podcast, either to me at terry[dot] young [at] or connecting with me on LinkedIn. On today's episode of the Powering Tomorrow podcast, we're discussing a successful example of innovation and community energy planning at the Region of Waterloo. Our guests are Matthew Day, the program manager at WR Community Energy, the organization that's implementing Waterloo Region's community energy investment strategy, and Tonja Leach, Executive Director of QUEST, a national organization that works to accelerate the adoption of efficient and integrated community scale energy systems in Canada. Welcome, Matthew. Welcome, Tonja. You know, we've all been working together to understand this local electricity picture, you know, so we can include the community input into broader electricity plans that we're developing, including new initiatives and pilots. And so before I start, I just want to say, thanks for your involvement in the work that collectively we're doing.

Matthew Day (02:55):

Thanks for having us, Terry.

Tonja Leach (02:56):

Yeah. Thank you very much.

Terry Young (02:56):

Tonja, let me start with you in terms of questions and, maybe just really just tell us a little bit about QUEST, the work that you've been doing with municipalities on community energy planning, how urban or energy planning has changed over the years and gotten to where it is right now.

Tonja Leach (03:16):

Yeah. Great. Thanks. Thanks a lot, Terry. I think, you know, QUEST is as you said, is a national organization. We've been around for 13 years now and a lot of our work is really centred around, collaboration. And I think that that is so critical to the future and the sustainable energy system. No one organization holds all the levers to make the changes that we need to make and we have to come together and do that collectively. So what QUEST does is, we work, as I say, we're national, but we work on the ground and we bring together a multitude of different stakeholders who hold the levers that you can pull to make changes to energy at the local level. Obviously that doesn't mean that we don't talk about climate and climate change and greenhouse gas emission reductions, because those things go hand in hand but what we do is three main things. We are a connector, where we bring together, all those stakeholders. We're an educator, in that we do applied research, developing tools, building knowledge at the local level, a lot of the kind of overcoming some of the challenges and building tools that enable the transition that we need to see in the energy system. And then also we're an influencer. So, we have a network of over 5,000 across Canada, and we leverage that network to, put messages before policymakers to help, to make policy changes that are also enabling. So I guess to wrap it all up in one single sentence, we're really enabling the conditions that we need to see the energy transition transpire.

Terry Young (04:50):

So maybe we'll go a little bit focus in on a particular community, Matthew, your community - tell us about the Waterloo Regional Community Investment Strategy, the purpose of WR Community Energy.

Matthew Day (05:03):

Yeah, we've seen how our community has changed as energy demands and technologies have changed over time. We probably don't have enough time to get into the whole history of energy transition, but very briefly, we moved from agricultural technology powered by windmills and animals to an industrial economy powered by coal power plants. And now we're living in a modern city powered largely by electricity allowed us to build up instead of out. And we've noticed how each of these energy transitions have solved problems in the past, but have also created new problems in the future. Currently we're facing many environmental problems with our energy usage, with urban sprawl and climate change. We've made a lot of progress towards the latter urban sprawl of it but we have a long way to go on the climate change front. And so the CEIS, the community energy investment strategy as a way to address these challenges largely by creating new opportunities.

Terry Young (06:03):

You know, I've been in the sector for over 30 years and I've certainly seen the change that's been occurring. You know, it's been, you know, when I first joined the sector, we were, if you thought about electricity in Ontario, you would think about, a big plant being built at the end of a very long line and bringing that energy into an urban center. And now what we're seeing is just so much more distributed energy. You know, we're seeing the promise of different technologies, but it hasn't been an easy journey. I would say that, that the change has taken some time. As we look to enable all of us look to enable change down the road, I think we're going to have our share of frustrations. Tell me what motivates you, like, we'll start with you Matthew. What is it that drives you to do what you're doing?

Matthew Day (07:01):

Well, personally, I'm very interested in the intersection between, energy and social justice, and just general equity. I don't see a divide between social issues and environmental issues. I see them all melding into one and energy is a really great opportunity to have boots on the ground opportunity to really integrate this. Some people who really inspire me are people like Van Jones, South of the border. He's really highlighted the social justice issues with energy and the socialization of the grid and how those who can afford to get off the grid will leave the rest of the responsibility for this grid to, to the other people. So there's just a strong interconnection of labor issues, environmental issues. So community energy is just a really great way to be on the ground in your community and making these changes.

Terry Young (08:04):

Tonja, you've been with QUEST now since the start. Tell us a little bit about some of, some of the motivation, some of your journey, if you will.

Tonja Leach (08:14):

Yeah, yeah, thanks. You know, hard to...what Matthew just said, because I think there are so many parallels, but maybe I'll just expand it a little bit further. You know, issues that we face in our communities in Canada are so diverse as diverse as the communities are themselves. I guess the beauty of, you know, smart energy communities is that you can tackle a multitude of different issues, through a lens of energy. Whether those issues are centred around energy, poverty, clean and affordable housing, clean drinking water, you know, there's so many different challenges that our communities face, and we're able to, by using this kind of energy lens, we're able to deal with a multitude of different issues. So that really has kind of the, where the passion comes from, I think for me and my role at the organization. And it's also hard not to say that the personal passion comes from the fact that I have three small children and I want to make a future for them. So yeah, that's, that's really where the passions come from for this.

Terry Young (09:19):

When you look at this, as you see, I guess, you know, when you look at how long you've been involved in a bow question for both of you, you know, what, what have you seen in terms of the progress and what do you see that, you know, in order for this progress to continue? What, what are the things that are going to be necessary for us to keep this going?

Speaker 3 (09:41):

Okay, sure. I'll take that one first. Yeah. I think that the thing for me, Terry, I've been at QUEST for 13 years, and then also in the energy industry prior to that. And, you know, if I really kind of ratchet my brain back over the past 20 plus years, the energy conversation in Canada has flipped, right? We are now the conversation used to always be about, you know, where supply was coming from, and then how did it trickle down into our communities? Now, the driver of the energy conversation and the energy transition is coming from the ground up. So as my Chair likes to say, we're looking at it from the opposite end of the telescope. And I think it's quite remarkable that we've done that over the course of the last 20 years. But now the challenge and the complexity of actually making the changes is right in front of us. And we have a massive opportunity, also a massive challenge to make those changes, in a very short period of time, I think. So I'm excited to be part of this, but that's really one of the kind of foundational, the biggest changes that I've seen,

Terry Young (10:45):

You know, you talk about changes and it's very clear that if you look at what's happened, particularly over the last decade, , the way this sector has changed, it's quite significant, you know, I like to write and I've written my share of speeches in the past, given my share of speeches in the past. And, when I would look at change, I would always talk about how much change is not happening in the electricity sector and the joke used to be, and I've told this here before, as well as is that, if Alexander Graham Bell would come back, he'd have no sense at all of what was going on in the telecommunications industry, but if Thomas Edison would have come back, it would be like he could pick up where he left off, and now you just can't see that, right? The dramatic changes that we've seen, in terms of how we produce electricity, in terms of how we deliver, it in terms of how we use it, you know, there's been so much change. And so Matthew, as you look at your experiences over the last little while, what stands out for you and, and in terms of also, where we need to go?

Matthew Day (11:57):

One of the biggest changes I've seen - I've been in this field maybe for 12 years, so not quite as long as Tonja, but close. All of my time has been here in Waterloo Region, and it has been terrific to see how the grassroots movement has created a social licence that has really fed itself up to the leadership level. We've been hiring, at the city and the municipality or the Regional community, and the cities are Directors and Commissioners and GMs have these really great, clear visions of the future. And they're integrating all of these really great ideas that are, beneficial, both economically environmentally. The vision is really ringing clear. You're talking about the use of energy, Terry, one of the core tenets for all folks involved in community energy is to decarbonize transportation and to decarbonize heating.

Matthew Day (12:56):

Largely this is through electrification. Just a few years ago, we launched our public transit system, our LRT that is the first time ever. We've started moving people en mass with electricity that represents a significant, progress here. And then along this path, we've seen just enormous amounts of economic development, just in the, one and a half kilometers near the, we call it the ION rail. Where I am, there's right now, 12 cranes up building condo towers, just densifying the population growth, which leads to more efficiency,

Terry Young (13:34):

You know, you're right in terms of that more efficient use of electricity that we continue to need to have, particularly as, you know, electrification goes forward. You know, it wasn't so long ago that our demand was jumping 7% a year, which essentially meant over a decade, you were having to double the infrastructure that was necessary to meet that demand. And now what we're seeing is, that leveling off. Energy efficiency is playing such a great part in this. I've had the responsibility of energy efficiency with the IESO for some time now and seeing the commitment of, the governments to support this and us to continue to help customers, to help the system actually, be more efficient. So, it's nice that we're all working in the same path.

Terry Young (14:39):

Step back for a minute though, if I can and think about your views of us as the system operator and what it is you need to see from us, in terms of what advice would you give me in terms of the development that you'd like to see over the next little while?

Tonja Leach (14:59):

I'll take a first stab at that. You know, I think that the work that the IESO does is fantastic. We've had the privilege of being able to work quite closely with you over, over the number of years that we have been around. It was also really impressed to see that, some of the work that we had done together, which some of it centred around, around the need for better alignment across planning that happens at the different governmental levels, whether that's at the local governments, the regional governments, such as the Region of Waterloo, with the IESO, with the province. We always, I think there's still more that we can do to sort of better the alignment across, a multitude of different stakeholders and not just, utilities with governments, but it also transpires into kind of the larger energy users, in the community as well.

Tonja Leach (15:51):

I think that the more of that kind of collaboration is, is needed. And I know collaboration is difficult and I think, if COVID - I don't wanna bring this, didn't necessarily bring this into here - but if it's taught us anything, it's the collaboration is so critical to making progress together. So I think we really need to draw on that as we move forward. Those are kind of a couple of things there, and, also we're here talking about electricity, but if we're really going to get to the outcomes that we're looking for it's going to take all hands on deck and we need to have the engagement. Everybody who has levers to pull, pulling on those levers to get us to the outcomes that we're looking for. So making sure that we are, always open to the other opportunities that may not seem like they are part of our immediate business, but are so critical to us collectively making progress.

Terry Young (16:50):

Matthew, anything you can, you'd like to add to that?

Matthew Day (16:52):

Yeah. I'd like to just point out one neat thing that I noticed, this past week, and then I have one more tangible thing at the end. Whenever I go on the IESO website, I'm always, surprised and delighted by the stuff that I find. There's so much on that website. That is just so cool. I just think it's kind of a bummer that I don't always know that it's there. So for example, we're working on a community energy efficiency grant with FCM. This is just a way to retrofit homes at large. One of the particular elements of that program that we're interested in is affordable housing. So we're trying to find ways that we can have low interest loans maybe fed through a local improvement charge, local permit charges and how that affects affordable housing. And we thought we were on our own on that. We, have been budgeting ways to hire consultants to really help us out. And that was preparing for this website, Terry, I'm looking around your website and sure enough, what did I find? I found five pages of how to employ the LIC, program for affordable housing. Great research methods, advice there and you know what, if it wasn't for this podcast, I wouldn't have even known it was there.

Matthew Day (18:03):

Then I guess finally, the idea, the other thing would be, the IESO currently has the monopoly on energy efficiency and conservation and management. I think locally, we have a lot, we can contribute here. If we're looking at reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 80%, by 2050, we're going to need to seriously engage the residential sector. We, and this is a sector that's historically been, difficult to communicate with. And there's not a lot of uptake on the programs that we do have. We would like to be able to create a one window service for all of our local residents, but we don't have a lot of leverage to pull here largely because of the structure of the conservation programs. So it would be great if we could partner, either provincially or at least locally on creating just a one-window shop that we can all draw on and share information equitably.

Terry Young (18:58):

Well, you know, as the sector has changed over the last decade, I would say that that a lot of the programs or resources that we have are also changing and showing tremendous potential. And when I look at, energy efficiency or conservation, again, you know how we have done this over the last, since 2006, has changed and it can continue to change. And communities like yours, Matthew are just more sophisticated about the ability to, become more energy efficient. And so we do need to work with you. We need to work with others, and this is where collaboration is so important because we're not on the ground the way that you are. And so, I encourage us and encourage you to continue to work with us so that we can, address the needs and the opportunities that are there. One of the ways that we're trying to create this is through our regional network. So we're very much interested in working with communities and we've created these five regional networks. I know you're both familiar with that. Any advice you can give us, you know, maybe in closing in terms of how we engage with our communities or advice to communities in terms of engaging with us, you know, mindful of who's listening.

Tonja Leach (20:18):

Yeah. Mindful of is listening. I think we all know that we need to collaborate more. We need to collaborate well. Obviously the devil's in the details on the how, but I do think that one thing that, and this is not necessarily for the IESO that specifically, but kind of governments more generally speaking - we've been obviously lots of conversations going on around building back better, is the capacity issue. And this is a massive issue. I think that local as Matthew was just articulating, like stumbling across the resources on your website, the ability to be able to tackle the challenge, we just don't have the capacity yet in order to do that. And so that is something that we need to overcome. I've also heard from utilities who say, we serve X number of communities and we don't have the capacity to work with them individually. So we have to find creative ways of, cohorting or working together so that we can not just accomplish the multiple outcomes and opportunities that exist at the local level. But also find more creative ways to collaborate together so that we can do so more effectively and efficiently. So I don't know exactly what that looks like, Terry, but happy to work with you on figuring that one out a bit more.

Terry Young (21:31):

Okay. I'll take, we'll take you up on that . Matthew, thoughts to you.

Matthew Day (21:36):

Tonya said, it said it perfectly, you had a few, a community engagement people, and it's just really awesome to be able to just call them up and say, hey Rouselle this is what I'm thinking about. And she's able to connect me with other folks. Just being very approachable, helps a lot for someone like me in my position.

Terry Young (21:56):

Well, let's keep the conversation going. And, I want to thank you both, Matthew and Tonja, for joining us on the podcast today. Look forward to hearing more about successful initiatives from WR Community Energy and Tonya with the ongoing work with QUEST. I think we've opened a lot of doors and I think we can keep going through them together. So, just one last thing that we're looking at, changing the way that we work, in the short term, and I think this will we'll move to the, to the longer term as well. I'm excited to let you and others know that we're launching an online engagement portal later this year. It will help us, to better communicate. So watch for more on this. We're, really excited about it, and very excited to hear from both of you today. Thanks again for joining us.

Matthew Day and Tonja Leach (22:49):

Thank you very much Terry.

Terry Young (22:59):

We hope you enjoyed this episode of the podcast to stay up to date on the latest initiatives, taking place across Ontario's electricity industry. We invite you to follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn, or by visiting us at Thanks for listening.