The Community Energy Knowledge-Action Partnership (CEKAP), funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, supports collaborative efforts between academic researchers and community energy planning practitioners with the goal of better understanding, and facilitating, positive changes through the implementation of community energy plans.
WHY COMMUNITY ENERGY PLANNING?
Research by QUEST has shown that more than 150 communities representing more than 50% of the Canadian population now have a community energy plan of some kind. This represents a paradigm shift in the way energy systems are governed: a shift toward more local involvement in energy planning. Municipalities and communities can achieve objectives that provincial and federal governments alone cannot. Community-level issues are sometimes outside of the purview of provincial-level planning activities. Municipal-level activities can fill this void under certain conditions.
Furthermore, community energy plans can help to minimize the impacts and capture the opportunities from structural change in the energy system, which are due to three primary pressures:
1. Decarbonization: the threat of climate change is compelling governments and industry to react quickly with renewable and low-carbon energy systems. Federal, provincial and territorial governments are recognizing the key role municipalities will play in developing and implementing policy that is consistent with the global objective of limiting temperature rise to less than 2°C. Local governments influence, directly or indirectly, almost 60% of Canada’s energy consumption and more than 50% of greenhouse gas emissions. Most importantly, our ability to achieve deep greenhouse gas reductions relies on fuel switching and efficiency improvements in transport, industry, and buildings: sectors that can be directly supported and enabled by local-level energy initiatives.
2. Decentralization: With the onset of cost-competitive distributed energy resources (DERs), such as “rooftop solar plus storage” or biogas generation or efficiency improvements, local residents and businesses are empowered to produce electricity on-site. This brings new investment opportunities into the community, and also has the potential to drive ratepayers off the utility-operated system (the so-called ‘utility death spiral’). Local electric utilities must think strategically about how to adapt; e.g., by acting as a service platform rather than a commodity carrier and / or making strategic investments in DERs.
3. Electrification: The cost-effective path to decarbonization is often through electrification. Electric and other alternative-fuel vehicles are re-shaping urban mobility patterns and fuel supply infrastructures which will have a direct and increasingly significant impact on a community’s broader urban planning processes and objectives.
Community energy plans, in spirit and in practice, are predicated on the idea that the costs and benefits of these structural changes will be easier to foresee and to manage if they are guided by a strategic community energy plan.
Finally, community energy planning processes provide a focal point for conversation across the community. This opens the door to conversations about local energy systems might help communities achieve greater prosperity, equity, and sustainability. It also helps to raise awareness about the economic benefits of new energy technologies and consumer behaviors to individuals and households; information that is often difficult to disseminate.
Our research program is underpinned by principles of community engaged research (see Figure 1 below). Through collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities, research challenges and themes are co-developed and then pursued in a context of partnership and reciprocity. The process of community engaged research can take many forms, depending on the role of the non-academic community. The research team will develop projects with various levels of involvement by non-academic partners and the communities in which we are working, depending on the nature of the project. By formulating research projects with community energy practitioners, we aim to increase our knowledge of the community energy planning and implementation process (i.e., improve reliability of our results), and develop knowledge for community energy practitioners (i.e., improve the utility of our results).
Figure 1: Levels of Community Engaged Research. Projects developed by the research team will involve varying levels of community engagement, and can therefore be mapped across this spectrum of approaches to community engaged research. Image adapted from Jordan (2016). SETTING OUR RESEARCH AGENDA
Consistent with the principles of community engaged research, our research agenda has been co-developed through various forms of collaboration between our academic partners and our non-academic partners, including small meetings, surveys, and full partner meetings. The process by which we have established our research program is depicted in Figure 2 below. Notice that the process is iterative in nature – as we grow the partnership and execute on our research agenda, we will continue to bring partners together to share research results and identify new/emerging research priorities.
Figure 2: Our collaborative approach to prioritizing research. We will update our research agenda following each annual partnership meeting to identify emerging research priorities across the partnership.
Over the course of this project, the partnership identified two core challenges that can be met by research: (1) aligning institutional and regulatory systems across orders of government, from municipal to federal, in order to unlock the potential of community energy initiatives; and (2) increasing local capacity to implement community energy initiatives, through local governance solutions as well as monitoring tools and metrics that can be applied across unique geographical contexts. At the intersection of these two core challenges, the partnership identified six core themes that required further attention. The challenges and themes are illustrated in Figure 3 below. You can click on one of the six research themes to find resources, or research outputs, related to each theme.
Figure 3: The major challenges we hope to address, and the six research themes through which we intend to address them. See our 'Resources' page for research outputs that connect to these themes.