Edmonton

Just Powers: Making the energy transition better for everyone

Image courtesy of JustPowers.ca

Image courtesy of JustPowers.ca

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.”

Lending the youth voice to sustainable city planning

Urban_Planning_2017-18.jpg

Lending the youth voice to sustainable city planning

Teenagers may seem like an unlikely crowd to be shaping city planning, but they are proving to be key players and an important voice.

“It’s our future too!” said Logan Fechter, a member of the City of Edmonton Youth Council (CEYC), an advisory committee for the city council that aims to represent the interests of Edmontonians between 13 and 23 years old. “It’s our kids’ future, so why not? ... It’s not like sustainability has to be outside of our reach.”

CEYC has several subcommittees that deal with hands-on work and draft many of the policy proposals put forward by the youth council as a whole. The urban and regional planning subcommittee focuses on topics such as transportation, infrastructure and sustainability, with the broader aim of helping to build the identity of Edmonton and its sustainable future.

This 16-member subcommittee has been pushing boundaries for three years, with projects like City Hall Solar, where it made a recommendation to council to put solar panels on city hall. The group was given the go ahead to work with city officials and engineers to determine the feasibility of this project. In the end, the group also learned not every good idea leads to an attainable project – the proposal was found to be outside of the budget due to cogeneration regulations and charges around the downtown area.

There is something special about urban planning because the work is physical and the outcomes do literally change the city, which is incredibly fulfilling.
— Logan Fechter

“There is something special about urban planning because the work is physical and the outcomes do literally change the city, which is incredibly fulfilling,” said Logan Fechter. “Even if it's as simple as giving feedback on a transit strategy, you are still bringing the youth perspective in to change the everyday reality of city life.”

Indeed, the subcommittee recently worked with the Edmonton transit system to collect feedback from 600 youth on the city’s new transit strategy so young people could weigh in on the issues that affected them.

“[If we] help make our transit system better, people won’t have to drive to all the places where they want to go,” said Kaelin Koufogiannakis, co-chair of the subommittee.

The group has also collaborated with the Change for Climate Edmonton conference to mount the “Sustainability of Tomorrow” youth speaker series, showcasing eight young adults leading their communities in sustainability.

Youth are and should be taking action on these issues and making an impact in their city. While the CEYC focuses on a range of topics, Koufogiannakis said a primary aim is to show council the youth of Edmonton really do care about sustainability.

“Youth are creative, innovative, and we are not buried by a bureaucratic need to check all of these boxes. So we can move things forward, add a new perspective and be an asset,” said Koufogiannakis.

In the future, CEYC’s urban planning subcommittee will support the efforts of City Lab, serve as the youth advisor for the new Edmonton Master City Plan and, as always, continue to give youth an opportunity to advocate for and create projects around the urban planning issues they care about.


Learn more about the City of Edmonton Youth Council, here.

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

Submit your new energy story here.


Solar Power Can Be a Community Effort

24. Evansdale Community League.jpg

Solar Power Can Be a Community Effort

In Edmonton, almost every neighbourhood has a community league. These locally elected boards of community volunteers do the work of running facilities and programs and engaging in civic issues. There are 158 such leagues in the city. It’s the most grassroots level of representation we have and these dedicated volunteers drive the communities’ agenda.

When the Evansdale Community League started a big infrastructure refurbishment project, it raised $800,000 to repave the ball hockey and basketball courts, install a new outdoor hockey rink and build an accompanying winter sports facility. As part of that project it also installed super-efficient LED rink lights and two LED parking lot lights. The icing on the cake: a 13.6 kilowatt solar system cost only $43,500 to install.

Gordon Howell is the electrical engineer who designed the system. By his calculations, this project will generate about half of the electricity used over the course of a year.

“Over the longer term, it’s a phenomenal investment,” says Howell. Making the decision even easier was that the City of Edmonton and the government of Alberta covered 85 per cent of the upfront costs with an infrastructure grant. With that, the solar project has a simple payback of four to five years, depending on the price of electricity. The final cost of the system came in at $3.20 per installed watt.


"Each of these [projects] feels like a small piece of the puzzle, but when you add them up, it’s the only way you actually get any real change"


“All the money that you save in the meantime [with solar], you can put towards community sports programs and the like,” says Howell.

Although it’s a small project, both the LEDs and solar system tie into the City of Edmonton’s community energy transition plan. The City announced recently that it wants 100 percent of Edmonton’s electricity generated from renewable sources by 2030. Community league roofs are a great place to start.

Ben Henderson is an Edmonton city councilor. He supported the energy transition plan and considers projects like this to be crucial to achieving those goals.

“Each of these [projects] feels like a small piece of the puzzle, but when you add them up, it’s the only way you actually get any real change,” says Henderson.

“Our energy transition strategy is about two things. It’s about how we can up our game and show leadership in terms of our own practice, but it’s also creating incentives that make it easier for businesses, for [community] leagues, for all sorts of non-profit groups, and for individuals on their own houses to be able to step up as well and take away some the real or imagined barriers that are stopping people from making those choices.”


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.