By Michael Cleland, Trevor McLeod and Monica Gattinger
In the Ottawa Citizen

Oct. 5, 2016

You can’t look anywhere these days without seeing evidence that politicians are either ignoring or misreading the will of the people. They do so at their own peril.

Consider the U.S. Republican Party, which has come close to self-destructing because its leadership misread the grassroots. Think of Brexit, which many in elite circles thought unimaginable.

Those in energy circles can be just as tone deaf. Some believe the public overwhelmingly supports a shift to low or zero emissions energy. After all, that is what the opinion polls seem to suggest.

Recent research done by the University of Ottawa and the Canada West Foundation tells us something quite different. Are policy-makers listening?

Our research involved six case studies of proposed energy projects. A number were electricity projects; some got approved and some did not. Some were built with community support and some over protests. But, of those approved and supported by communities, it was for reasons other than speeding our transition to cleaner energy.

A hydro project in Manitoba proved acceptable only after the affected First Nation became an equity partner and project capacity was reduced to minimize flooding-related habitat loss. Yet another, a gas-fired power plant in King Township, Ont., was built only after a siting process that in many eyes ran roughshod over the affected community.

Two projects – a gas-fired power plant in Oakville and a wind farm in Quebec – got turned down because of community opposition.

It is widely believed that Quebecers are particularly keen on clean energy. So why would they turn down a wind farm? The residents felt it would turn a rural environment into, in effect, an industrial landscape.

As we think about the massive energy transition before us, governments and clean energy advocates should ask whether rushing to a new energy world will prove less popular than they assume. If so, what should we do about it?

Different approaches are needed to avoid increasingly protracted disputes and decision-making processes will require a great deal of time from industry executives, regulators and politicians to carefully and genuinely build relationships.

Power lines are going to be especially tough, because they are highly visible and large and because some – rationally or not – fear potential health effects. Yet lines will be needed: Renewable power will be generated mainly in remote areas and connected to urban centres by transmission lines.

Communities – including First Nations – are going to have a bigger say on energy infrastructure. That’s the new reality. They will also need to be active players with real authority to plan their community’s energy future.

There is no shortcut. Governments could try to ram through a transition to a cleaner energy future because they think it’s the right thing do. They could tell local communities to suck it up. Or they could recognize that local voices may be delivering a different message than what energy decision-makers want to believe. They want a real say in their energy futures. If that is denied, the political costs may prove dire and enduring.

For many years, elections, polls and protests have told us different and often contradictory things about energy. High level surveys tell us people want clean and green. But they might feel very differently when the new infrastructure is in their own backyard. They also might feel very differently if clean and green comes with skyrocketing price tags.

There are lots of voices out there. Maddeningly, they are often as contrary as they are insistent. Those contemplating a new energy future would do well to listen carefully.

Michael Cleland is a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa.

Trevor McLeod is director of the Centre for Natural Resources Policy at the Canada West Foundation.

Monica Gattinger is chair of Positive Energy and director of uOttawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy.