Talking about talking about energy

 

The electricity sector is all about efficiency. Market participants, utilities and regulators are constantly looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the system. No one would think of proposing new infrastructure that duplicated the function of existing infrastructure without a solid reliability reason. Ontario’s energy policy is founded on the principle of Conservation First. Regulatory proceedings and task forces on consolidation scour the landscape for opportunities to eliminate waste. How ironic is it then, considering the widespread determination to achieve and improve efficiency, that the sector is home to multiple and often uncounted layers upon layers of systems for talking with the public?

          There is no doubt that talking with the public is an essential part of managing and building the energy system. Often discounted in years past, now nearly as vital as engineering or finance, public engagement has become an indispensable pillar of any sizable new infrastructure project. Yet the sector struggles with basic questions of proportion: How much public engagement is necessary in any particular case, how should a particular process be focused or structured, and how does one assess with certainty if an approach to public engagement is sufficient or appropriate? Sure there are rules of thumb and principles for guidance. No one expects absolute precision in the social sciences. But the unresolved questions are serious. Considering that public engagement has become a cornerstone of project development, not to mention a regulatory requirement, the need for rigor in scope-setting and common, consistent systems of measurement has become unmistakable.

          One indicator of the inadequacy of our current systems for assessing public engagement exercises is the almost simultaneous operation of multiple processes in related areas with little relationship to one another. While some concurrent consultation may be necessary from time to time, the degree of potential duplication in the current system is astounding. For example, one LDC in Ontario recently noted that it is expected to conduct or be part of four potentially simultaneous forms of public consultation:

1. Public engagement on its Distribution System Plan

2. Stakeholder review of the Integrated Regional Resource Plan for its area of the province

3. Public engagement on plan-related Environmental Assessment application(s)

4. Periodic review of the provincial power system plan, in a form that has yet to be determined.

          At the same time, many municipalities are consulting their citizens about their provincially sanctioned municipal energy plan. In addition, energy infrastructure will be part of the picture as municipalities consult their residents on the official plan. In theory a citizen could be approached for input on six different processes related to electricity planning in the same year. It could easily lead to confusion or at least fatigue on the part of the residents. Part of an LDC’s responsibility when reaching out to the public is to explain where the current consultation process fits in relation to the other consultations that the residents may have heard about.

          And as if to broaden the scope of these responsibilities, in 2013, the IESO and the former OPA jointly released a landmark set of recommendations, now enshrined as provincial policy, that made public engagement a core duty for energy agencies. The August 2013 report, “Engaging Local Communities in Ontario’s Electricity Planning Continuum,” has become a benchmark in the sector. It has made comprehensive, continuous and meaningful consultation into a nearly universal standard.

          Consulting the public is good practice. It needs to be widely used. But more is not always better. If consultation processes are popping up like wildflowers in the spring, they may actually interfere with one another.

          Sage advice on how to provide for effective public engagement has been prepared by the Mowat Centre at the University of Toronto: “Energy assets are long-term investments that require long-term plans. Such plans produce policy consistency and certainty over time. This certainty can only come from an open decision-making process that subjects plans to public scrutiny and debate, with clearly defined roles for elected officials, the public and energy experts.” Their report titled “Getting the Green Light,” released in 2013, identifies a set of planning principles and made ten recommendations including: “Require integration between levels of planning.”

          In October 2014, the Mowat Centre released a further report on public engagement, developing and building on the findings of its earlier report. Noting that, “Since the break-up of Ontario Hydro in 1998, the role of the public in energy planning has been poorly defined,” the report went on to say “While there is effective consumer representation in regulatory hearings at the Ontario Energy Board (OEB), the province’s energy regulator, there is a lack of coordinated engagement throughout the energy policy process.” Authors Richard Carlson and Eric Martin cite three stages of decision-making where “the needs of small consumers generally need to be considered:

• The policy area, in which new energy policies are developed by the government;

• The regulatory area, in which energy regulators decide how policies will be implemented, how rates will be designed and how costs will be allocated; and

• The local siting area, in which decisions are made regarding where to build new energy infrastructure.”

          The latest Mowat report stresses that, “There is need for coordinated, informed, and literate engagement on energy policy in Ontario. This engagement should be designed to respond to the single most pressing policy problem in energy planning: insufficient public dialogue and understanding of the real tradeoffs inherent in energy policy as decision-makers try to balance environmental, economic, and reliability considerations.”

          Similar initiatives are underway in the broader energy sector and across Canada. One example seems to demonstrate that there is unsatisfied public curiosity and plenty of interest in conversations about the energy sector. The Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation (CSTMC) has launched “Let’s Talk Energy,” a national program that aims to enhance energy awareness and literacy among Canadians. Upcoming in February across the country is Talk Energy Week, “a national energy awareness week devoted to people learning and talking about energy systems, sources and use.”

          At the same time, a national network of museums and science organizations have partnered with CSTMC to “improve energy literacy amongst Canadians,” and “maximize the number of Canadians engaged in a dialogue on Canada’s energy future.”

          The benefits of energy literacy initiatives are remarkably widespread: The proponents of energy infrastructure projects in Canada from transmission corridors to pipelines have a considerable stake in the level of energy literacy. Regulators will find their challenges more manageable as energy literacy rises across the country. And of course the ratepayer will enjoy lower costs if consultation takes place quickly, thoroughly and definitively.

          The scientific minds that have been engaged to talk to the public about energy are no doubt considering how they are talking to each other. Some reconciliation between consultation processes is likely necessary and that will take proponents into the delicate territory of tradeoffs. It will likely mean some consultations will be subsumed by others, or face further kinds of choices. Senior management will need to be prepared to make adjustments in terms of design and leadership in some cases. But who better to resolve the questions about consultations than those who have a direct stake in the outcome. The electricity sector has solved much more complex challenges and has clearly put this one in its sights for the near term.

Jake Brooks, Editor

 

For further information, see:

Agencies propose techniques to enhance community engagement in power planning,” IPPSO FACTO, August 2013.

Premier Wynne promises change in siting practices,” IPPSO FACTO, November 2013.

Making procurement more participatory,” IPPSO FACTO, August 2013.

Community engagement practices take on new significance,” IPPSO FACTO, November 2013

 “’Getting the green light’ study finds paths to public support,” IPPSO FACTO, August 2013

“Major study likely to raise the bar in stakeholder engagement,” IPPSO FACTO, October 2007.

 “Getting the Green Light: The Path to Public Support for Ontario’s Power Plans,” Published by the Mowat Centre, a research body based at the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto.

There is a lack of structure for engaging the public, Mowat says

 

 

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