So What’s the Deal with the Community Energy Initiative?

Monday’s action-packed council meeting will include a presentation about updating the Community Energy Initiative, a plan created by various stakeholders in the Royal City to make Guelph more energy efficient from now on through 2031. The report coming to council though has come attached now with a bit of controversy thanks to some comments Mayor Cam Guthrie made at the Governance Committee earlier this month. So what is the CEI, and what so controversial about it?

So what’s the CEI?
According to the original material, the goal of the CEI is to “create a healthy, reliable and sustainable energy future by continually increasing the effectiveness of how we use and manage our energy and water resources.” Launched in 2007 by a consortium of stakeholders from the City, Guelph Hydro, the University of Guelph, and assorted non-profits and businesses, the CEI’s goal is to promote Guelph as a place to support sustainable energy, make total city-wide energy use less than the global average, and use less energy and water per capita than the average Canadian city.

Why are we updating?
The plan is 10 years old, so it’s time for an update, and that means it’s also time for a report on how the plan’s been implemented so far. A thorough analysis of per capita energy use and greenhouse gas emission is currently underway, but while the preliminary feedback suggests that both factors have been on a downward slide, Guelph seems to have bottomed out. The levels have remained for the most part unchanged since 2009.

So what’s going to be updated?
Obviously, with the last round of milestones expired, council will have to establish new ones. Staff will also have to explore what the new best practices are from various municipalities, and what provincial and federal programs the city can lean on. The update will also included a renewed call for community engagement, new reporting protocols, and new timelines.

Okay, so what did Mayor Guthrie say about all this?
As reported by the Guelph Tribune Guthrie said that any update to the CEI had to have “realistic, achievable goals.” That’s not so bad right? But then Guthrie talked specifically about the Guelph Energy Efficiency Retrofit Strategy (GEERS).

And what is GEERS?
GEERS is basically one way to help implement the CEI. To put it simply, it will allow homeowners to use GEERS to add energy efficient improvements to their home with the assistance of the City. Instead of paying a big bill upfront to have the work down, homeowners will be able to pay it back over 20 years at the same time they pay their property taxes. The cost will be tied to the house, not the homeowner, so if you sell your house 10 years after you get the retrofits, the new homeowner will pay off the remainder. Rob Kerr, manager of community energy, said last fall that the goal is to get 2,400 houses upgraded by the year 2031.

So what did the Mayor say about it?
“I think it has become fantasy, not vision,” the Guelph Tribune reported. “We can’t do all these things, to the detriment of fixing the sidewalks” or keeping the parks in good shape, he added

What say the other members of council?

“The GEERS program is an exciting and ambitious endeavor that I am in support of if implemented correctly. To protect the universal benefit to all in Guelph however, Council needs to ensure the administrative burdens of the program are in line with realistic revenue projections. In short, it must be revenue neutral or revenue positive for this city.” – Dan Gibson.

“By supporting an update next week, we can move forward with a robust plan that gives us the sustainability we need, while addressing climate change. I believe that along with a well-defined strategy for measuring the financial outlook for the CEI, we need to consider the triple bottom line here. The social, environmental and health benefits of this plan are incalculable and every bit as important as the economic aspect.” – James Gordon.

“I am afraid that in pursuing this model we will fail. I think it is has a foundation that will crumble.” – Bob Bell.

Should we have concerns?
Sure, any long-term, major project like this should prompt concerns and scrutiny from the general public. Administrative costs maybe higher than anticipated, and there could be a question about what happens if the program is successful beyond City estimates. Cllr. Christine Billings posed a philosophical point last fall suggesting that the program would put the City of Guelph in the position of “almost being a high-level general contractor” (a question about the role of government). Also, it will have to be decided what types of renovations will be covered by GEERS, and whether there will be room for innovation and adjustments in the list as new best practices become available. At the same time, contracting can be a shady business, so could the City be liable if their work’s done wrong? And will there be an approved list on contractors?

So who’s for it?
A lot of people. Ward 5 Councillors Leanne Piper and Cathy Downer have been enthusiastic supporters of GEERS, but there’s a lot of support in the private sector for it too. In fact, the Guelph Chamber of Commerce and eMERGE, a non-profit dedicated to energy efficiency advocacy, co-wrote an op-ed endorsing it earlier this year. It’s worth noting that according to Deutsche Bank, every $1 million invested in energy efficiency-related retrofits in multi-family affordable housing buildings generated between $1.3 million and $3.9 million in energy savings.

Any other cities doing anything like this?
Yes, actually. Toronto launched Home Energy Loan Program (HELP) almost two years ago. Similar to GEERS, it allows homeowners to get energy retrofits covered by the City of Toronto, and pay it back over over a 5, 10 or 15 year period.

Did you know that the CEI won an award?
Last fall, the City of Guelph won the 2015 Community Energy Builder Award for “Local Government” from QUEST (Quality Urban Energy Systems of Tomorrow) Canada. “This award is an honour. The Guelph Energy Efficiency Retrofit Strategy (GEERS) is a critical component of Community Energy Initiative (CEI). When fully designed, approved by Council, and implemented, GEERS will have a critical role is contributing to the targets of the CEI. Thank you QUEST for your valuable support,” said Robert Kerr, Manager of Community Energy at the City of Guelph, in a press release.

What happens now?
Find out Monday night.

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