How can rural communities play a leadership role in designing their energy future?

What is the impact of community energy resource ownership on economic development?

The Advanced Energy Centre and Studio Y visited Pelee Island in March to hear local perspectives around energy and economic development. We returned to MaRS inspired by the creativity and strength within this rural remote community.

With only 150 permanent residents, and a local economy in transition from agriculture to tourism – the importance of meaningful economic development in Pelee Island is clear. The Island is Canada’s southernmost community, so it may come as a surprise that access to Pelee Island is limited to fly-in only in the winter. During the busy tourist season, residents and visitors rely on a ferry.

Studio Y Fellow Julia Zeeman leads a discussion on community energy with the Council of the Township of Pelee. Photo: S. Baker.
Studio Y Fellow Julia Zeeman leads a discussion on community energy with the Council of the Township of Pelee. Photo: S. Baker.

As a convener of community stakeholders, utilities and innovators, the AEC strives to enable new energy sector dialogue focused on innovative clean and low-cost solutions. With Studio Y, we’re testing a new process that starts with consultation and sharing knowledge, before starting to design solutions.

During our visit, we conducted interviews with island residents, presented to the council of the Township of Pelee Island, and engaged with locals at the Royal Canadian Legion during community luncheons. We heard stories demonstrating the strength and capability of islanders to effectively participate in their local energy system, and listened to concerns around the cost and reliability of electricity.

Understanding local perspectives on energy: Aaron Barter (AEC) consults with councillors and local residents of Pelee Island. Photo: S. Baker.
Understanding local perspectives on energy: Aaron Barter (AEC) consults with councillors and local residents of Pelee Island. Photo: S. Baker.

The rural community is also facing energy-related challenges. In 2014, the underwater electrical supply failed (twice) during the height of tourist season, causing power outages until a large diesel generator could be delivered from the mainland. Mayor Rick Masse credits Hydro One with a swift response, minimizing impact on tourism and local businesses.

Community-owned renewable energy projects foster a diversified economy, entrepreneurism and local innovation, and are welcome sources of additional income in rural areas that may otherwise rely heavily on a single sector. Farmers and ranchers often view renewable energy projects as a way to supplement their income without having to leave their land. (Pembina Institute)

Despite the Island’s southern location – roughly the same latitude as Barcelona – residents are prevented from participating in solar energy projects. Although 60kW of solar PV has been installed on Pelee Island with the MicroFIT program, connection of new generation is prohibited due to aging grid infrastructure.

What we learned is that life in this remote community is sustained by the resilience and generosity of local residents – the Pelee Island Co-operative has been an important lifeline to island residents by providing groceries, postal service and fuel since 1916. The year-round population of Pelee fell 40% between 2006 and 2011, a dramatic trend that presents major challenges for the community’s future economic sustainability – and threatens the livelihood of the island’s residents. Many families leave the island when children reach high school age, and increasingly residents are choose island life when the ferry is running, during milder weather.

Born and raised on Pelee Island, Grant Crawford is a soybean farmer, grandfather, and early adopter of solar PV in the community. Photo: S. Baker.
Born and raised on Pelee Island, Grant Crawford is a soybean farmer, grandfather, and early adopter of solar PV in the community. Photo: S. Baker.

 

Eco-tourism will continue to play a vital role in the economic strategy for this community, rooted in ongoing ecological nature and land conservation efforts. Notably, over 20% of the Township of Pelee is conserved land, more than any other municipality in Canada. In the future, renewable energy such as solar PV could enhance the community’s eco-tourism potential as a ‘green island’ similar to Capgemini’s project on the Island of Texel in the Netherlands, or El Hierro in the Canary Islands.

The future of energy on Pelee Island is uncertain. But what is certain is the willingness and openness of local residents to create sustainable economic development for the community.

We would like to thank Mayor Rick Masse, Councilor Peter Letkeman, Councilor Dayne Malloch and Councilor Darlene Wiper for their generosity and relentless advocacy for the Pelee Island community.

We are also extremely grateful for the advice and support of Katrina DiGiovanni, Michelle Feltz and Wayne Miller from the Township of Pelee, as well as the dozens of other residents who shared their ideas and time during our visit.

Aaron Barter

Aaron led the Community Energy Program at the Advanced Energy Centre, which examines systemic barriers to deployment of innovative technologies within local energy systems, and convenes industry to accelerate the deployment of microgrid solutions in Canada. See more…

Julia Zeeman

I am a young environmental professional and a straightforward strategic thinker. I have a strong passion to prevent climate change, and am captivated with the Community Power movement in Ontario. I am a board member for Sustainability Ontario Community Energy Co-operative, and I have worked with the Toronto Renewable Energy Co-operative and the Federation of...