A clever series of presentation slides at a conference in Ottawa last week placed small communities at the centre of the energy transition and spotlighted Prince Edward Island as Canada’s next source of breakaway climate leadership.
With a population of 161,455 and just 1.6 million tonnes of emissions in 2020—less than a quarter of a percent of the national total—PEI might not be the first place most Canadians would look for decisive action to cut carbon. But a 2040 deadline to achieve a 100% emissions reduction may make it the first province or territory to hit net-zero, and some of the program innovations the island is trying out are already catching the attention of other governments.
“Part of the reason we will get there first is that we aren’t industrialized, we don’t have those industrial emissions to get rid of,” PEI Environment, Energy and Climate Action Minister Steven Myers told The Energy Mix. But “we’re down to the nuts and bolts….Once the industrial numbers go down in Ontario and Alberta and those places, the [emission] numbers really end up being residential and transportation, and that’s what we’re figuring out now.”
The Centre of the Universe
PEI’s somewhat playful positioning at the centre of the energy transition universe showed up in a keynote presentation at last week’s Sustainable Communities Conference, hosted by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM). In the first of a series of four slides, Søren Hermansen, CEO and director of the Samsø Energy Academy, showed his home community of Samsø Island at the centre of all that matters in Denmark. The next two slides zoomed out to show Samsø, with a population of roughly 4,000, at the geographic centre of the European Union, then the centre of the world.
The final slide in the series extended that lofty positioning to Prince Edward Island, where Hermansen had visited just two days before.
“There’s an interest on PEI to create a green lab for innovation,” Hermansen told The Mix after his session. “But it has two sides to it. One is that they’re very keen on inviting industry to come and develop on PEI, so that’s about money and power. But they’re smart enough to realize that they can’t get away with that if there aren’t some local projects, as well.”
He cited Summerside, PEI, as a community that has embraced renewable electricity—it’s home to a quartet of three-megawatt wind turbines, and unveiled a C$69-million solar farm last year that will boost its renewables production above 65% of local demand.
After that, “the electricity system needed to be upgraded, so one thing led to the next,” Hermansen said. “But now they have the most advanced system on the island. They’re way ahead of everybody else. So they’re a shining example of the community being responsible for its own action,” which could then lead to the next round of energy transition activity.
Mayor Steve Ogden
Mayor Steve Ogden of Stratford, PEI, a community of 9,700 about six kilometres southeast of Charlottetown, was in the room for Hermansen’s talk. The town received $2.5 million from the FCM’s Green Municipal Fund for its share of the Switch Efficiency Program, which conducts home energy assessments before offering zero-interest loans for up to 15 years to help homeowners pay for solar panels, heat pumps, or new windows or insulation. The province augments the program with free or discounted heat pumps for households below a certain income threshold. Switch Efficiency participants also have access to an online navigator to help them track other federal or provincial funding that will help pay for their energy efficiency improvements and carbon reductions.
Even after making their monthly payments, the program ensures that homeowners save at least $15 per month on home energy, and the installations pay for themselves over time through the energy costs they prevent. “So it’s a real advantage,” Ogden said. “It’s a no-brainer.”
Ogden said he’d been learning about programs elsewhere that “check all the boxes” by delivering jobs and affordable housing, using local products and labour, respecting Indigenous peoples and reconciliation —and cut carbon along the way.
“Local resiliency is crucial,” he added, citing PEI’s recent experience with post-tropical storm Fiona. “If we depend on outside help, we’re not going to get it in three or four weeks or in months. In the winter, people are going to die. So we need that self-reliance on an island,” just as Samsø Island does.
But Ogden stressed that the transition in Stratford and across PEI is about more than home energy audits and heat pumps.
‘It’s the Whole Culture’
“The big thing I took away from Søren’s presentation was that it’s not only the technical, the financial, and the fiscal arguments that are persuasive,” he said. “It’s the whole culture. It’s how you look at things through people’s eyes, find common ground, and help them understand how it’s to their advantage financially and socially to have a pristine environment and keep it that way for our children…
“It’s all about respecting people’s viewpoints, respecting where they’re coming from, then building on that common ground.”
Myers said the province put a high premium on making its residential programs easy to use—rather than requiring home occupants to fill out forms and track down quotes for the work they want done, the program hired an independent contractor to handle all the administration.
“Part of the reason we’re having such great success is that we reduced the barriers,” he said. “It’s not a ‘wait till they come to us’ program. It’s going out and saying we’ll do everything to make this happen,”
While PEI hopes to have half of its homes converted to non-emitting energy sources by the end of this year, residential retrofits are just one part of the energy transition picture in a province where 41% of the emissions came from transportation in 2020, followed by agriculture at 23% and buildings at 19%. Myers said major elements of the program include:
• Residential retrofits and fuel switching programs that will all count as non-emitting electricity once the New Brunswick coal plant that feeds the island is phased out in 2030;
• A rooftop solar program—Myers says it’s the best in Canada—that has installed enough panels since 2019 to cover 10% of summer base load demand;
• A new program rolling out in the near future for commercial and multi-unit residential buildings;
• An island-wide “toonie transit” system that offers $2 bus service across PEI and “has been quite impressive so far” in encouraging drivers to leave their cars at home;
• An active transportation program that includes a fast-growing network of safe bike lanes and a $500 rebate for electric bikes;
• A path to net-zero recently introduced by the PEI Federation of Agriculture that includes soil restoration and measuring nutrients by the square metre to minimize fertilizer use.
“The farmers I talk to are all onboard,” he said. Nitrogen fertilizers “are a costly input, so if you can reduce that 20%, it’s 20% in their pocket. It’s just like everything else we’re doing—it all has a positive financial impact, and as we decarbonize, the money will stay in the pockets of the people and businesses and industry.”
The shift off carbon “is not going to be more expensive,” Myers said. “It’s going to be less expensive.”