Just Powers: Making the energy transition better for everyone

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

THIS STORY IS PART OF OUR SERIES ON WOMEN AND THE ENERGY TRANSITION. Women are key to increasing the momentum towards a lower carbon future and making sure no one is left behind. Across Alberta they are leading the charge in a shift to a lower-carbon world, as business and community leaders, educators, communicators and innovators. From industry professionals and leading researchers, to those running community workshops, organizing campaigns and changing their homes, these are their stories.

Just Powers: Making the energy transition better for everyone

Every year, Sheena Wilson gives her university students an assignment: choose a favourite subject or hobby and figure out how it relates to energy and the current transition away from a fossil fuel-based energy system.

The students must analyze how their interests could look different under a different energy system and how those changes might impact their community – and their day-to-day lives.

“At the beginning, most students don’t believe that their interests are linked to the energy industry,” said Wilson, associate professor at the University of Alberta’s Campus Saint-Jean and principle investigator of the Just Powers research initiative.

Launched in 2018, Just Powers is an inter-disciplinary and community-based project looking at climate justice issues ­– that is, framing climate change through an ethical and political lens, rather than one that is purely scientific – and examining social and cultural power in the energy transition.

Viewing the energy transition solely as a capitalist problem – where new technologies provide a new market and therefore potential for profit – does nothing to create a more liveable future for everyone, said Wilson.

“We need to think seriously about what we want to keep from the age of oil,” she said. “What’s important to us and what we’re willing to let go of and how an energy transition actually might be better for us all.”

We need to think seriously about what we want to keep from the age of oil: what’s important to us and what we’re willing to let go of and how an energy transition actually might be better for us all.”
— Sheena Wilson

Voices and knowledge

In an attempt to shift the discourse, the Just Powers project is tapping into a range of voices historically underrepresented in the energy transition conversation, like minority groups, indigenous communities, youth and women. The goal is to get people thinking about who owns energy systems, who benefits from them, and how they can be both affordable and accessible to everyone. 

“Bodies that held certain knowledges – feminized voices, voices of colour – they’ve been undervalued, or intentionally silenced and overwritten,” said Wilson, adding that climate issues are not separate from other social issues, like gender discrimination, poverty and racism, for example.

A feminist approach to energy transition is not restricted to women, said Wilson, but is a way of thinking holistically about energy systems, people and relationships.

 “Leaders who do this value reintroducing a broad range of perspectives and knowledges not usually consulted about energy,” said Wilson, “which is often seen as merely a technical issue, when really we all need to take energy seriously as a social issue.”

Designing new energy systems is a big part of designing the shape of our future lives and communities. If that isn’t something relevant to everyone, I don’t know what is.
— Sheena Wilson
Photo by Kenneth Tam

Photo by Kenneth Tam

Different mediums

To reach the most people, Just Powers – which is funded primarily by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the University of Alberta’s Future Energy Systems and Kule Institute for Advanced Study – is taking a non-traditional approach to documenting and sharing knowledge and resources.

“We’ve known since the 50s and 60s that climate change is an issue,” said Wilson. “I don’t think another chart or graph is going to make that much of a difference anymore,”

Through mediums like creative non-fiction, visual storytelling, podcasts, games and art, Just Powers is designing projects that give scholars and experts with different perspectives the opportunity to share their knowledge.

For example, Perfect Storm: Feminist Energy Transition is a role-playing game that demonstrates class and cultural politics in Canada’s energy transition. Bigstone Cree: A Vision for the Future is a documentary project that explores the impact of the energy transition on Indigenous communities. The Speculative Energy Futures project is empowering scientists, activists and artists to collaborate with each other.

In addition, the iDoc project has collected over a hundred interviews with Canadians working on climate change, from engineers to community organizers. The complete interviews, along with easy-to-share video clips, will be hosted on an open access archive within the next few months. Meanwhile the Just Powers podcast, now in Season 3, is giving a literal voice to many who have been historically overlooked in the energy transition.

We’ve known since the 50s and 60s that climate change is an issue. I don’t think another chart or graph is going to make that much of a difference anymore.
— Sheena Wilson

Getting involved

An Abacus Data poll this summer reported 64 per cent of Canadians are worried about the impacts of climate change and half of Albertans say climate change is currently an emergency, or will become one in the next few years.

However, Wilson said, many people are hesitant to get involved for fear of appearing either too political or too uninformed on the subject.

But Wilson says showing up is what counts most.

“The information is out there,” said Wilson. “The truth is we have to start adapting to a different climate, and we can begin to do that by getting involved.”

To that end, Just Powers is organizing a year-long project with La Cité Francophone to look at retrofitting its popular cultural centre, running literacy programs for people wanting to increase their energy transition understanding, and mobilizing high school students to share their own research. And for those searching for initiatives within their own communities, Wilson recommends visiting their municipality websites, like Edmonton’s Community Energy Transition Strategy.

“We need to start talking about these things, learning from each other and figuring it out together as a community,” said Wilson.

“After all, who is energy for? Energy systems shape our lives. They heat and power our built environment, our homes, paving the way for our transportation and communication systems.

“Designing new energy systems is a big part of designing the shape of our future lives and communities. If that isn’t something relevant to everyone, I don’t know what is.”

Students on Sustainability helps add environment to elementary education

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Students on Sustainability

Students on Sustainability is a group of university students in Calgary working on bringing more environmental education to Alberta classrooms.

Growing up in Calgary and going through the public school system, the group’s founder Patrick Duke felt as though he had received a quality education, but found climate change wasn’t thoroughly included in his schooling. Even when it was, he said, it wasn’t multidisciplinary, it was often rushed, and was usually only offered within a higher level science course.

“Your grades should not hold you back from this kind of education,” said Duke, “from being aware and being environmentally conscious.”

Environmental education shouldn’t be something only for some students. Duke sees climate change as a topic that should be “for everyone – in science, the humanities and option classes throughout a student’s education.”

In his own education, Duke saw the effects of learning more about climate change in his first year of university. Duke enrolled in the petroleum geology program, “because my parents, my neighbors, and my friends all worked in oil and gas.” But when he started learning more about climate change in one of his first-year courses, he changed programs.

Climate change is happening and it is something students need to be informed about so that they can think about it when picking a career for the future.
— Patrick Duke

“Climate change is happening and it is something students need to be informed about, so that they can think about it when picking a career for the future,” he said.

With Students on Sustainability, Duke hopes their lessons will “open up perspectives and career choices that a student wouldn't think of otherwise as an option.”

Duke founded Students on Sustainability in December of 2017, and started to collaborate with education groups to generate content that meets the regular requirements of Alberta lesson plans, but with a slight spin on sustainability. By the end of January the group had 28 volunteers trained to give curriculum-based lessons across Calgary, and hopes to soon expand their reach across the province.

One group Students on Sustainability works with is the Alberta Council on Environmental Education (ACEE), which helps connect students to its network of teachers. From February to June last year, Students on Sustainability delivered a total of 35 school presentations and participated in several events, reaching some 1,500 kids in their first few months of outreach.

Students on Sustainability allows for younger students to learn about sustainability from a university student who is engaged and passionate about what they are doing. Duke said that this dynamic is key to their success.

“It’s impactful,” he said. “The students often look up and connect to the university students. Having that different perspective in the classroom is great.”

Learn more about Students on Sustainability, here.

For more information on environmental education in Alberta, see our resources page.

Submit your own new energy story here.

Calgary’s Wind-powered LRT

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Calgary’s wind-powered LRT

Calgary’s C-Train light-rail system is overwhelmingly popular with residents, boasting an average weekday ridership of 325,000. It has kick-started smarter, denser development around its stations. And best of all, it is 100 per cent powered by renewable energy.

Now, the LRT does not run on electrons delivered straight from wind turbines — instead, it’s connected to the standard electricity grid, which is still dominated by coal and natural gas power. In 2001, Calgary city council voted to purchase 21,000 megawatt-hours of wind power a year for 10 years. That’s how much electricity the LRT uses in a year. Twelve wind turbines were erected to fulfill Calgary’s investment. By purchasing wind power, Calgary Transit reports it is avoiding the emission of 56,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

In 2012, Calgary went all-in on renewable energy, purchasing enough renewable power for all of the city’s operations. Because of this, two wind farms were built, totaling 144 megawatts of installed wind capacity.

While the C-Train is completely wind powered, the City’s other operations use a mix of renewables: wind, hydro, biomass and solar power. The power purchase agreement totals 450,000 megawatt-hours a year, or the equivalent power demand of over 65,000 Calgary homes.

Cities like Calgary are playing a leadership role without breaking the bank. While the City of Calgary wouldn’t disclose the terms of their power purchase agreement with ENMAX, wind is the cheapest source of electricity in Alberta. The first round of the Renewable Energy Program announced in December 2017 yielded the cheapest wind price in Canada at 3.7 cents per kilowatt-hour while the average price for electricity from coal was 7.7 cents per-kilowatt hour.

Doubly cool is the phenomenal ridership rate Calgary has achieved for its LRT, logging 102 million trips in 2017. That is reducing congestion, bringing down emissions and building the clean energy economy of the future.

A full three-car C-Train carries 600 people. Not only does the C-Train take a lot of cars off the road, it also helps the city grow in a smarter, denser way.

“Our next step is a big shift, and that’s transit-oriented development. That means making sure more people are living at the transit nodes outside of the downtown core. That’s not something we’ve done a lot of in the past in Calgary, but it has to happen now,” says Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi.

With 46 stations and 118 km of track, that thinking makes sense. When you start talking about location efficient housing, more people living closer to an LRT station means less money spent on transportation by residents, less pollution and less congestion on the roads.

Read the full story on Green Energy Futures here

For more information on how to undertake your own renewables project, check out the resources page.

Submit your new energy story here.