Jay Heaman is passionate about renewable energy. An electrician by training, he worked for the local electricity distributor in Woodstock, Ontario, for 27 years. The job he now holds — manager of strategic initiatives for the County of Oxford — allows his passion free range.
In June 2015, Oxford (which is between Hamilton and London) passed a motion committing itself to 100 per cent renewable energy for electricity, heating and transportation by 2050. It's the first municipality in Ontario to make this promise. (Oxford won't ban fossil fuels but any used will be offset by renewables, resulting in net-zero carbon emissions.)
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The most exciting part, Heaman argues, is that the decision was unanimous. All county mayors and councillors voted in favour of the 100 per cent renewables requirement.
Art Gibson, who sits on the steering committee of Smart Energy Oxford — a pro-renewables coalition of businesses, citizens and municipalities — says support is broad not just among politicians but also the general public. "This is the dairy capital of Ontario; it's a conservative area, but they're buying in," he says. "When the county does educational fairs [on renewables] they get 400 or 500 people out, at least."
Heaman says Oxford's bold decision came in the context of an extensive 18-month debate the county undertook on sustainability in general. "The idea of 100 per cent renewables surfaced during stakeholder discussions," he says, adding that excitement also grew during a May 2015 environment conference in Vancouver, which Oxford councillors enthusiastically attended. "The City of Vancouver had committed to renewables, so the question for us became, 'Could Oxford go this route as well?'"
The county government promotes renewables in a variety of ways, including owning and operating solar panels on public buildings. This has multiple benefits. The panels enhance the buildings' values and mean the county is effectively in the electricity-generation business. "We were one of the first municipalities to get into this," says Melissa Abercrombie, the county's manager of roads and facilities. The power is sold into the grid and provides Oxford with revenue; six small projects generated $45,000 in 2015. As well, because the solar-power systems are installed by companies based in the region, they foster local job creation.
The county is also considering what it calls the "Solar Oxford Challenge". It would ask citizens to cut their energy use by up to 50 per cent over a year, then satisfy their remaining electricity needs by mounting two- to three-kilowatt solar panels on the roofs of their homes. Residents could purchase the panels with the help of county-backed low-interest loans.
Heaman believes Oxford's new policy is about more than providing power. The conversation begins with energy generation but then moves to efficiency. Residents start thinking about how they can retrofit their houses, how they can consume less. The process also engenders what he calls "energy democracy" — the notion that electricity production is not just the domain of large centralized facilities but can be undertaken by individuals and co-ops. "People come to realize, for example, that if they have an electric vehicle they can create 90 per cent of the power for their transportation right off their own roof [with solar panels]." The move to renewables is sparking a broader change in culture.
Local governments have a long history of being environmental leaders. Years before many provinces banned lawn-and-garden pesticides, for example, use of these poisons was regulated by some of Canada's municipalities. After then-U.S. president George W. Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, hundreds of American mayors said they would strive to fulfill its terms themselves. The David Suzuki Foundation hopes Canadian towns and cities will take inspiration from Oxford county and realize that they, too, can go 100 per cent renewable. Doing so will help them meet climate targets, generate income and create good, meaningful jobs.