“We’re seeing a shift in responding to climate change,” says Martin Boucher, “Technological innovation isn’t holding us back. Engineers are hitting home runs and we’re moving forward with policy.”
Martin Boucher is a Faculty Lecturer with the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan. His principal areas of interest include energy justice, public policy and decentralized energy, and cities and climate change. He’s curious about the next phase of energy transition but also optimistic: “Lots of things are taking off thanks to tangible policy and innovation.”
“We have to pay attention to how it impacts people.”
Martin identifies a tension between pursuing reduced emissions as a response to climate action and quality of life. Energy justice dwells at the intersection of these two concepts and addresses the question of setting priorities. “It’s important not to move forward on an energy policy without considering its impact,” Martin says. “The energy system is remarkably technical and the long-time focus has been on technology, but we shouldn’t forget the social element. We have to pay attention to how it impacts people.” This is particularly important as people want to be more engaged than they have been in the past with both personal and group renewable energy installations.
Very few people have expertise in both the technical and social limitations of energy. While the technology and policies are now well developed, Martin believes the critical next step will be in developing the capacity to get things done. “We need the business engagement and political skills to facilitate an accelerated approach,” Martin says. “It’s a big shift and a big change. We need people who are knowledgeable on the technical side and can see how they’d fit, employing leadership and teamwork.” He also identifies a need for training and education to provide career advice and ensure technical skill development.
Martin did some consulting in the coal country around Estevan and believes we need to be honest about the fact that transitioning from fitting pipes to building turbines will be really difficult. “We needed coal workers for a long time and they were important,” Martin says. “They’re some of the people who are most impacted, and it’s not an easy switch, especially for a mid-career individual with a family.”
Public Policy and Decentralized Energy
“Electricity you don’t use is amazing as it doesn’t go through the whole production system.”
Saskatchewan presents both challenges and opportunities for a successful energy transition. The province has very high energy usage per household; building stock is energy-inefficient; and its continuing reliance on coal and natural gas compounds the problem.
There is increased interest in decentralized energy with independent power production through small-scale renewable energy projects. This disrupts a well-established system that is under pressure to include small-scale decentralization, running counter to large-scale production and adding complexity. “The utility isn’t making any money from small-scale solar,” Martin says. “It often comes at a cost that’s then spread throughout the system. If smaller-scale operations continue to increase, it could serve as an existential threat to utilities such as SaskPower where 75% of the bill represents fixed infrastructure costs.”
Martin believes SaskPower is motivated to make the transition, but it’s hard. It’s important for people to demonstrate their support as this will create political capital to assist in making shifts in the energy system. We can also support an energy transition through greater energy efficiency. “Electricity you don’t use is amazing as it doesn’t go through the whole production system,” Martin explains.
Cities and Climate Change
“There’s been a generalized reluctance to help landlords. This is a gap we need to address.”
One area that doesn’t receive a great deal of attention is energy efficiency for low-income, long-term renters. The building stock for low-income renters is some of the most inefficient and the current programs supporting energy efficiency are directed at middle- and upper-income families. “We need to address this missing demographic if we’re to meet some fairly aggressive net-zero targets,” Martin says.
As part of Research Junction, a partnership between the University of Saskatchewan and the City of Saskatoon, Martin has just started working on a research project to consider the options for this demographic. The university research team will be interviewing landlords and tenants to collect both quantitative and qualitative information, while the City will share critical data on energy use and demographics.
Low-income energy efficiency is a challenging problem to resolve as landlords and tenants have different objectives. Martin believes a critical element will be reducing up-front capital costs, particularly for renters. “We need something more aggressive than existing programs to make it really, really easy for low-income tenants and landlords,” Martin says. “There’s been a generalized reluctance to help landlords. This is a gap we need to address.” Martin hopes that the program can be expanded to other parts of the country in order to fully explore ways of reducing the impact of increased energy costs and net-zero on different income groups.
Accelerating Decentralized Energy Transitions: A Socio-Technical Perspective, Martin Boucher (PhD dissertation)
Video: Saskatoon delivers Saskatchewan’s first local home-energy financing program, Federation of Canadian Municipalities
Energy Management Programs, NorQuest College
Electricity Affordability and Equity in Canada’s Energy Transition, Canadian Climate Institute
Investigating Energy Justice in Demand-Side Low-Carbon Innovations in Ontario, Frontiers in Sustainable Cities
Communicating Affordability and the Energy Transition, Clean Energy Canada webinar, October 20, 2022
Low-Income Energy Network, Ontario
Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/apmckinlay/16421232641
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