Democratizing local smart energy systems

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

a young man smiling
AMTD Waterloo Global Talent Postdoctoral Fellow Chad Walker is exploring how our transition to green energy can be equitable

As we imagine a post-Covid landscape the phrase ‘building back better’ is more than just an alliterative cheer to keep peoples’ spirits up. The federal government of Canada is preparing to invest up to $100 billion over the next three fiscal years into a variety of project to boost the economy. A portion of this is earmarked for green energy systems.

By now most of us are familiar with green energy technologies — electric cars, wind and solar power for instance. But, if we take the government literally, what exactly does ‘better’ green energy look like?

Chad Walker, Environment’s most-recent AMTD Waterloo Global Talent Postdoctoral Fellowship recipient, is going to find out. His new research project, An Opportunity for Smart Local Energy Systems to ‘Build Back Better’ in Ontario, will focus on issues of equity, justice, and support for clean energy technologies as they roll-out across the province, not only in places that can traditionally afford them.

“The transition to a low-carbon society is often thought of in terms of the four D’s, decarbonization, decentralization, digitalization, and democratization,” says Walker. “I am most interested in the last – democratization. What happens when our energy system is more local and in the hands of citizens?”

Walker is more than confident that smart local energy systems, consisting of new technologies (like smart meters) working in tandem with nearby renewable energy, battery storage, electric vehicles, and heat pumps, have huge potential to lower emissions associated with climate change.  A key to sustainability as Walker sees it, is “to start seeing all of these individual elements as connected or part of a system – a system that can have real effects, positive and negative, on local residents.”

illustration of a local energy system

“It's not the technologies or even systems themselves that will necessarily address climate change. Progress can be stalled if we implement them or roll them out in the wrong way that can lead to negative impacts on local communities that are playing host,” says Walker.

Case in point are the wind turbines we’ve seen pop-up in rural communities across Ontario (and the country). As he notes, “they have to be in rural areas, and in Ontario, we've seen a lot of resistance to wind energy development over the last 10 years or so, in large part because of the way they were rolled out.”

It’s been well-documented that wind turbines bother some people who felt benefits where inadequate and/or had little say in the matter if their neighbor chose to have them installed on their land. If they had been consulted better in the early stages, they may have felt the process had been more fair to them.

This investigation is about learning the best ways we can develop smart local energy systems. And it goes beyond issues of equity and justice for communities that find themselves home to these projects. As we saw with the introduction of wind energy across Ontario, if individuals don't like changes to their energy system, there will certainly be political ramifications of this as well.

Walker will be researching under the guidance of Environment’s Ian Rowlands, an expert in the field of sustainable energy systems. With Rowlands’ experience, Walker wants his research to go beyond the theoretical and into practical impact. He’s working with community and project partners across Ontario as well as colleagues from around the world, including the UK – a world leader in the understanding of smart local energy systems.

“We’ll also be working with community, industry and government partners to translate our findings into action. This would begin with community and project team meetings during

the first three months and would continue throughout the life of the project,” Walker says. To help with community engagement, they’re setting up social media profiles to get unvarnished opinions from the public.

For Walker, his AMTD Waterloo Global Talent Postdoctoral Fellowship is ultimately about transforming energy in Ontario and Canada into a system that benefits everyone, especially those most marginalized and typically left out of low-carbon transitions.

“I really think it's important for Canada get ahead of the game and be leaders in this area, not only to address the climate crisis, but increasingly, there's economic opportunity,” he says. “There are going to be countries that dominate and become leaders in things like electric vehicles and batteries. But to become a true leader, I think we also need to understand what people want, what local residents and citizens want, and how they want to be involved in this vital transition.”