100% Renewable Ottawa: an interview with David Chernushenko

By Angela Keller-Herzog

Photo: Creative Commons 2.0

Photo: Creative Commons 2.0

Angela Keller-Herzog asks David Chernushenko, Capital Ward Councillor and new chair of the city’s Environment Committee, to explain his call for a 100% Renewable Ottawa.

David, you have put forward a big idea – uniting Ottawa in pursuit of a 100 per cent renewable local energy economy by 2050. In your Councillor’s Report in the January Glebe Report, you provided a thumbnail of what “100% Renewable” means: the region of Ottawa producing all of its net energy needs locally from renewable energy sources. You propose a comprehensive strategy encompassing conservation and efficiency (demand management), increased local supply of various forms of renewable energy, and renewable-friendly urban design practices and regulations.

1. So the first question must be – is this big idea technically feasible? Is 100% Renewable by 2050 a pie-in-the-sky target? Where are other cities on this?

There is no reason that Ottawa cannot adopt such a target, and certainly no technical reason. We’re not talking about new technology. It’s about adopting better conservation practices and efficiency, shifting to more public transit and active transportation over private vehicle use, and shifting the vehicle fleet over several decades to a much cleaner and more electrified one. The technology will continue to improve, but it exists. Mostly we really need an attitude shift.

More than 100 towns, municipalities and cities across Europe are part of a 100% Renewable Energy Network. North America is coming along – San Francisco and Vancouver are leaders.

2. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, the president of the World Bank, Jim Yon Kim, said that 2015 is the year of climate action. It has also been said that cities and municipalities have an enormous opportunity to innovate and to move quickly with greater agility than national governments. Now, it is certainly true that Stephen Harper has not moved on climate change – at least not in a forward direction. How do you see the opportunity for Ottawa? Are we in the right time and place for this kind of initiative?

Ottawa is very well positioned. While a geographically sprawling city poses challenges, it also has advantages: we’ve got rural spaces, agricultural land, flowing water and dense urban environments that will increasingly support transit. So we can draw on a very diverse set of resources to provide the energy. We can produce wind – appropriately sized and located in rural environments. We can produce solar in all parts of the city. We also have biofuels. Ottawa has innovative companies and is a generator of ideas through academic institutions, the National Research Council and other federal bodies. An amazing number of residents have technical expertise in pure research, applied science, information technology and governance. We’ve got it all, but we have to focus it and bring it together.

3. So we need to get from idea to plan to implementation. In San Francisco, planning 100% Renewable by 2020, they set up a mayoral task force for a year. In Sydney, Australia, planning for 2030, a chief development officer has led the development of master plans with multi-stakeholder inputs. How do you think that leadership and the mandate on 100% Renewable can be structured in Ottawa?

We can approach this from the top down or the bottom up. I think it should be both, ideally with strong leadership from City Council and the Mayor’s office. But I recognize that the Mayor and my fellow councillors, just like many citizens, need to be fully introduced to this idea and persuaded of its many benefits. As councillor and chair of the Environment Committee, I want to bring together a small group over the next two to four months to put forward a proposal that is persuasive, substantive and well thought through.
Many might dismiss 100% Renewable by 2050 as a crazy, impossible idea. But when you see how much of the technology already exists, and where other cities are on this timeline, you might come to think that we can do it much sooner.

4. You have talked about uniting Ottawa behind this idea and outlined broad-based benefits for citizens and businesses. Who would be the key stakeholders in 100% Renewable Ottawa? Is there room for citizen participation?

Everybody is a stakeholder, so absolutely, participation can come from everyone. It’s homeowners and Ottawa Community Housing retrofitting buildings, Hydro Ottawa investing in conservation and renewable energy generation. It’s the City streamlining the approvals process for people who want to put solar panels on their roofs or some other renewable generating system, so they don’t run into more hurdles and expenses than necessary. It’s the ongoing development of a so-called smart grid and getting more out of our smart meters.

People will have that “aha” moment where they say, “Of course I’d like to have that cleaner air and the benefits of greenhouse gas reduction,” but this 100% Renewable is really an economic development strategy: we’re talking jobs, economic development, local ownership of power generation, and leadership in attracting leading-edge technology and people fresh out of school to Ottawa. This is wide open to participation and has benefits for everyone. This is why I think 100% Renewable is transformative, inspiring and unifying – it’s a big enough concept that it can be all of those things.

5. What about the politics? What do you think is needed for you to carry your fellow councillors and the Mayor toward the political will to make this a go?

Those, like me, who believe that 100% Renewable is exciting, achievable and necessary need to put together a compelling case that answers the questions “Why?” and “How?” I do not expect all councillors to immediately see the value in supporting this revolutionary way of approaching city business. We need to show them why it’s necessary and beneficial to everyone.

6. The money question. Clearly there are significant cost savings to be realized from energy efficiency. But we would be kidding ourselves if we imagined that implementation of such a transformative project would be free. Toronto has its Atmospheric fund with millions to invest. Others are talking about issuing green bonds. How can 100% Renewable Ottawa be financed?

We need to be open to the whole array of financing tools. Ottawa as a city “corporation” is only one player in achieving 100% Renewable. Every sector will want to be involved, as will every level of government. This would be a partnership, a projet de societé as it is known in French.

7. So we are at the starting blocks. A fresh term of Council has just begun. What will be your first step on this transformative journey to 100% Renewable Ottawa? What should we be watching for? For those of us wanting to rally behind this idea, where is the trailhead?

I am putting together a working group to help me flesh out this idea. At this point, I need technical experts more than passionate laypeople in order to build the business case. Ultimately, the project’s success will rely on the full involvement of civil society, and the passionate layperson will play a key role. Anyone who wants to offer support, be it technical or merely an expression of support, can contact me directly.

Angela Keller-Herzog is active with the Community Network of Ecology Ottawa.

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