Mapping Opportunities for Renewable Energy: A Guidebook

Technological innovation, public policy and consumer demand have all helped to restructure electricity markets and create conditions in which renewable energy (RE) systems are quickly becoming cost-competitive against electricity generation from coal, nuclear, and natural gas. Meanwhile, social movements and investment trends are driving governments and corporations to commit to zero or near zero carbon emissions – commitments that will require substantial development of renewable energy resources. The social and economic opportunity for communities is tremendous. RE systems can be very small scale and less capital intensive, which enables home-owners, property owners, and community cooperatives to participate in energy generation through direct ownership or manageable investments. So the financial benefits can be more evenly distributed across society. As RE systems become the primary source of energy for electric vehicles, local air quality and therefore health outcomes are vastly improved.

With these opportunities come challenges. Renewable energy systems introduce landscape impacts and land-use tradeoffs that need to be identified and managed – think about solar panels covering what was once an active pasture; wind turbines altering a natural view and introducing a new risk to local wildlife; or agricultural fields growing crops for energy rather than food. RE infrastructure is also highly visible and covers wide areas; energy generation is no longer ‘out of sight, out of mind’ like coal or nuclear. In other words, the energy transition is a profound landscape transformation. They can often be in conflict with existing land-based economies and ecosystem services, and their high visibility raises concerns about landscape aesthetics among local citizens.   

How much land, and what kind of land, will be needed to power a sustainable energy future? Can we allocate significant tracts of land to RE production and still ensure that our local landscapes continue to provide food, habitat, spaces for recreation, and other land-based economies and ecosystem services? How are these land-use tradeoffs perceived by the general public? How will changing technologies mitigate or exacerbate these issues? And how should our existing land-use planning systems evolve to help manage these trade-offs?

These are just some of the questions that our guidebook will help answer. We provide tools to map local renewable energy resources, and provide guidance on how to engage communities and stakeholders in conversations about the opportunities and impacts. Using the tools described in this guidebook, local communities and governments will have some of the critical information they need to minimize impacts and maximize benefits of the transition toward local renewable energy production.

For a shorter description of the work including a case study of the Regional Municipality of Peel, read our primer here.

For a detailed guidebook on how to replicate our mapping and community engagement process, read our full guidebook here.

This work was completed with funding and partnerships from the Independent Electricity System Operator of Ontario, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, MITACS, University of Guelph, and the Regional Municipality of Peel. Please note that the mapping work in Peel is for research purposes only – the locations highlighted on the maps are not indications of any planned projects or future projects. They are meant as a basis for conversation only.