21st century public consultation: A “How Not To” guide

In 2009, the Government of Ontario passed the Green Energy and Green Economy Act (GEGEA). Now, two years in, the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) is taking a moment to reach out to the public, collect their comments, and decide what should be included in a mid-course correction for the Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program.

The GEGEA was intended to stimulate growth in renewable energy, conserve energy at the household level, create jobs, and help mitigate climate change. The future of the FIT program, and indeed the GEGEA, hangs in the balance. Some critical issues threaten the ability of the Act to achieve its goals. The review will surface and clarify these issues.

Ontario is the only province to have taken such an aggressive approach to green energy. Other jurisdictions in Canada and beyond look to Ontario as a bellwether for their own plans. If Ontario gets it right, the result may well be a new green standard that other provinces will strive to meet. If, however, the province gets it wrong, it could set the dream of a green and carbon-neutral future back many years. A lot is riding on this review.

It is encouraging that the OPA has chosen a public consultation process as a tool to help with their decision-making. The GEGEA has elicited a range of reactions among the people of Ontario, ranging from the evangelistic fervour that many acquire once they have solar panels on their rooftops, to the bitter NIMBY zeal that has surfaced in some locations where wind farms are proposed or already in production. Given just how many people actually care about this review – a rarity in this era of voter apathy – it is all the more important that the process draws out all relevant and representative views, and also quantifies these views to avoid the squeaky wheel syndrome.

According to the Ministry of Energy website, the review will consist of an online survey, emailed submissions, and consultations with the renewable energy sector. Does this meet the objective of providing a channel to receive any and all feedback? Definitely. Could the ministry be doing more? Absolutely.

In the past month I’ve participated in – or at least been aware of – three gatherings of stakeholders in the renewable energy sector, initiated by three different organizations. The first organization is the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association (OSEA), the second the Ontario Solar Network (OSN), and the third the Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSIA).

OSEA’s webinar was a follow-up from its November Community Energy 2011 conference, where some initial feedback was gathered from a selected group of attendees. OSEA members include people who have already completed renewable energy projects, or hope to, or help either of the first two camps in some fashion (be it by providing financing, cooperative ownership structures, insurance, or even just moral support). Feedback collected at the conference was synthesized into a slide show and presented by the OSEA Executive Director, Kris Stevens, and well-respected industry commentator and consultant Marion Fraser. If anyone from the Ministry was present for the webinar, they did not reveal themselves. While Chris Bentley, the Minister of Energy, spoke at the conference, as far as I know he did not involve himself in any dialogue or consultations.

The OSN event was a town hall-style meeting on the University of Toronto campus, which began with presentations from members of the OSN’s FIT Review Coalition and concluded with questions from the assembled constituents. Most attendees were installers – small business owners that actually build solar energy systems of various sizes. The feedback from attendees was plentiful, broad-ranging, and animated. The Ministry was not represented at the session at all.

CanSIA represents the Canadian solar industry, including both PV and thermal. However, it is dominated by the very largest players – solar panel manufacturers like Canadian Solar and Q.Cells, developers like SkyPower and SunEdison, and an assortment of well-heeled firms providing financing, insurance, and legal counsel. During its annual Solar Canada conference last week, CanSIA hosted a closed-doors meeting between the Deputy Minister of Energy and a very small, select group – mostly CanSIA board members, if I understand correctly. As at the OSEA conference, Minister Bentley gave a speech, but as far as I know he did not engage with the conference attendees in any way.

Three facts are consistent across each of these events. First, each was a spectacular gathering of people with a deep knowledge of the renewable energy sector, the GEGEA, and the FIT program. Second, because of this, each event presented a tremendous opportunity for the Ministry to consult with a highly knowledgeable group of FIT program stakeholders.  Third, the Ministry did not make any meaningful effort to capitalize on any of these opportunities.

Instead, each of these groups is expected to make its submission to the FIT review in the same way as anyone else – write it up and email it in.

This is the 21st century. Technology has advanced. So has understanding on the most effective ways to consult the public. Why does the FIT review look essentially identical to something that could have taken place a hundred years ago?

What could have been done to improve the whole undertaking?

First, the Ministry should have seized the opportunities presented by Community Power 2011, the OSN FIT Review town hall meeting, and Solar Canada 2011 to wring out every possible drop of insight from the very richest sources available. Second, the Ministry should have convened a much more visible public consultation process, involving a series of town hall meetings like the OSN one. This would allow a broad spectrum of the public to make submissions, but what’s more, one person could build on the ideas of another. It would hence build much more valuable insights than would be possible when each person must submit their ideas in isolation. Third, the Ministry should have taken the process online, providing an open forum where everyone could see what everyone else was saying, and where brainstorming, synergy, and mutual inspiration can take the discussion to another, higher level entirely.

It’s 2011. We know better. And we can do better.

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