QUEST: Quality Urban Energy Systems of Tomorrow An Integrated Regional District Energy System

QUEST: Quality Urban Energy Systems of Tomorrow An Integrated Regional District Energy System

Professor Ann Dale, Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Community Development, Trudeau Fellow (2004), Royal Roads University, School of Environment and Sustainability
Published December 15, 2010

Case Summary

Sustainable community development is beyond any one sector, any one discipline and any one government to implement. Its problems and thus its solutions lie in trans-disciplinary, integrated approaches to its achievement. It demands unprecedented ways of collaborating and novel social innovation, and new models of governance. This case study examines one such model, a loose consortium model of private sector energy providers, former public policy experts, political and civil society leaders that came together in the belief that the right conversations around climate change were not happening. Given its resources, the most critical of which appears to be human capital, particularly diverse champions, QUEST has made significant progress in advancing public policy, addressing knowledge gaps, connecting decision-makers and accelerating momentum at the national and provincial levels through a variety of activities.

Sustainable Development Characteristics

Energy is the foundation of all human activity and indeed, all life. Our heavy reliance on non-renewable energy sources is now being intensely debated, with predictions about peak oil and the end of oil as we now know it. Regardless of these predictions, it is only common sense to move as quickly as possible away from non-renewable energy sources to renewables, and to develop transition strategies to accomplish this end. Sustainable energy strategies and energy security are a critical component of integrated community planning for communities everywhere in Canada.

Meeting Canada’s climate change and clean air goals will require large reductions in energy consumption in all sectors of the economy. One way to meet this imperative in the shorter term is through an integrated, community based approach, by using energy more efficiently, by matching the type of energy with its use, managing surplus heat across applications and sectors, converting waste to energy, as well as integrating on-site renewable sources of energy with existing energy grids.

Critical Success Factors

There are several critical factors that contributed to the success of QUEST; leadership, partnerships, space, timing and form. The leadership of the Canadian Gas Association (CGA) provided critical infrastructure from the beginning for the very powerful partnerships that were brought to the table. These stakeholders included diverse players and actors all germane to the issue, including former civil servants with a deep understanding and appreciation of the national picture, and private sector actors very experienced in influencing government agendas. In addition to getting the ‘right’ stakeholders together, having the ‘right big idea’ was a powerful convening factor to align government program people, with private sector interests that created the right ‘time’ to move the agenda and enhance knowledge sharing. The right idea, that is, the need for an integrated strategy for land, water, transportation and energy, created momentum and traction to continue to identify people who could bring more influence to bear on the issue at hand. The self-organizing safe space created through this unique public/private sector partnership facilitated peer-to-peer learning, trust and respect, allowed the actors to work more openly with one another and to identify ways to go around structural barriers.

Community Contact Information

Tonja Leach
QUEST - Quality Urban Energy Systems of Tomorrow
350 Sparks Street, Suite 809
Ottawa, Ontario
K1R 7S8
Tel: 613. 748-0057, x322

What Worked?

QUEST created a safe space for decision-makers, and the private and public capital sides to come together to discuss areas of mutual concern and to try to work out the tensions between energy suppliers and the lack of a ‘bigger energy picture’ in Canada and to try an develop a national conversation. Its success factors are the diversity of players that have been brought together at the table, it is definitely not your ‘usual suspects’ and keeping that character in the conversation as it moves forward. Another key factor was that the timing was right, as well as its absence of formal structure that allows it to transcend traditional solitudes, silos and stovepipes (Dale, 2001). And finally, its focus on sustainable energy provision and trying to identify and fill the gaps makes it value-added to existing institutional actors and political decision-makers, as is its continually expanding and inclusive outreach.

What Didn’t Work?

QUEST straddles an ENGO/association model, thus, there will always be gaps between the integration of its direction with current political agendas. The scale of its work across the country could be accelerated with greater funding over a longer term, for example, at least five years. Although the decentralized model appears very effective in terms of both augmenting engagement and side-stepping federal/provincial/municipal barriers, there may be a need for regional networks at some point. There is also the need to ensure that the vision continues to evolve dynamically as more and more partners join the network and provincial caucuses are built, or else, intellectual and ethical coherence may be lost.

Financial Costs and Funding Sources

In the first three years of its existence, seed money was provided by the Canadian Gas Association (CGA), the Canadian Electrical Association (CEA), the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute, Imperial Oil Foundation, the Canadian GeoExchange Coalition, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and the Federal Government (Natural Resources Canada and Transport Canada). In addition, the Department initiated a two year secondment for one of its employees to CGA, on leave without pay1 . Subsequent core funding was obtained from Natural Resources Canada, as well as continuing private sector funding and leadership.

The Federal Government also supported the first QUEST workshop in the amount of $10,000.00. A multi-year contribution agreement was subsequently established with the Federal Government to fund ongoing work, in addition to private sector sources.

Research Analysis

This case study was prepared using in-depth personal interviews with a majority of the members of the original planning group, the current Chair of QUEST, and two members of its regional caucuses, as well as employees from the founding organizations, the Canadian Gas and Canadian Electricity Associations, over a period of a year and a half, and federal government officials. In addition to exploring the detailed background of the organization, all interviewees were asked to comment extensively on why they think the organization has worked and what novel governance factors are emerging, especially for sustainable energy and sustainable community development. In addition, the author participated in a planning meeting prior to the third QUEST workshop held in Quebec City.

Clearly, QUEST was an idea with the right people in the place at the right time. The original diversity of initial planning group was instrumental in bringing together diverse expertise and practice that could influence the system at multiple levels, “reinforcing one another in weird and wonderful ways”. CGA had also previously been involved in the citiesplus initiative, and therefore, had experienced the power of networks to facilitate peer-to-peer learning. Such learning is considered crucial for knowledge mobilization as research shows that cities learn by copying other cities, that big cities learn from medium sized ones and they learn from smaller ones, and that when faced with a difficult dilemma, 80% of senior city officials turn first to their colleagues, not to research results (Seymoar et al., 2009).

Key features of QUEST is that it is tightly focused and principles based, while at the same time, its organization is “fluid and fuzzy”, and the QUEST process itself models integration of both product and process. This fluid structure facilitates a unique flexibility which allows for emergence and evolution of the process and adaptive learning. The alignment of private sector interests and the public sector policy agenda has increased its capacity to influence political and bureaucratic decision-making, and timing has been crucial. By deliberatively looking at the ‘blurred space’ where no-one else is talking, it created a new public policy discourse at the local level where none previously existed. QUEST has created an unusual space, with solid intellectual and technical foundations, that the private and public sectors are able to share freely, with a high degree of trust and openness, and a “whole bunch of people own it”. Diverse stakeholders are actively engaged in the process and QUEST continues to expand and diversify its networks, increasing vital connections. It is an amplifier, is very aware of the need for validating individual efforts and its unique private/public alliance. Its funding by both public and private commitments ensures a functional diversity around a common agenda, and its “inclusive text” contributes to wider and wider community engagement.

The framing of the issue, collectively deliberated by the tri-sector partnership, was critical to generating its positive momentum across the country. This framing built a ‘space’ that is positive and constructive, where common ground could be discovered, and mobility or traction is generated that leads to further conversation, rather than the more traditional polarized debate starting simply with energy supply.

QUEST has dynamically evolved, and its process of iterative learning where each workshop fed back into the design of the next has ensured increasing degrees of relevancy and value-added to local communities. Clearly, the stars were aligned, as it is essentially “a bunch of old ideas that had been around a long time” that were strategically coalesced by key leaders from all three sectors. QUEST is a novel model that also allows private sector partners to see what the future may be, and where government plays a role through a distributed network of stakeholders creating the conversation, and governments are a participant, not an owner of the process.

Detailed Case Background Description

On July 12, 2006, the Canadian Electricity Association (CEA) and the Canadian Gas Association (CGA) issued a press release confirming that reducing energy demand growth through energy efficiency and demand side management (DSM) shows considerable potential to help ensure a sustainable energy future in Canada. Its study, the first of its kind in Canada, Demand Side Management Potential in Canada: Energy Efficiency Study, confirmed “the need for greater coordination on energy efficiency policy and program development between governments, utilities, regulators and other stakeholders”, declared Mike Cleland, CGA President and Chief Executive Officer2.

Prior to the announcement, in May 2006, a small planning group comprised of Shahrzad Rahbar, Senior Vice-President of the Canadian Gas Association, Ken Ogilvie, head of Pollution Probe and Mike Harcourt, former head of the Federal Government’s Task Force on Cities, came together to discuss the lack of integrated community energy planning in Canada, and the lack of a comprehensive demand side management strategy in Canada. There was general disagreement with the lack of leadership by the Federal Government and the belief that the wrong conversations were being conducted with respect to climate change. There was also an interest in stimulating non-siloed academic research that brought the right people together. The seeds for QUEST, Quality Urban Energy Systems of Tomorrow, were sown, and following a first workshop in Niagara-on-the-Lake, in 2007, QUEST was formalized at a second workshop in Victoria, in November 2008. In March, 2009, Ken Ogilvie3, prepared a policy paper on potential organizational models that included an environmental scan of the field, identified who the key stakeholders were, and what the potential involvement of the three levels of government should be, which became the basic operating document for moving forward. At this time, the core planning group agreed that CGA would continue provide core support and leadership.

Initially, QUEST existed as an idea nationally, and is now focused provincially and on the need for developing community processes in order to achieve integrated energy planning and efficiency. Over time, QUEST evolved into a collaborative of key players across Canada from industry, the environmental movement, governments, academia and the consulting community that encouraged all levels of government, industry and citizens to support an integrated approach to providing energy services in communities. Best characterized as a consortium model, it has no formal structure, although the core group (the Canadian Gas Association, the Canadian Electricity Association, the Canadian Urban Institute, and Chair, Mike Harcourt) provides some foundational direction. Its mission is to foster integrated, community-based approaches, which address energy end-use and reduce related greenhouse gas and air pollutant emissions.

QUEST's vision is that by 2050, every community in Canada will be operating as an integrated energy system, and accordingly, all community development and redevelopment incorporates an integrated energy system. This vision builds on progress that has been made on energy-efficient appliances, eco-efficient buildings, district heating systems, renewable energy technologies, waste heat utilization, waste recycling and landfill gas capture, net zero energy homes, green roofs, and other innovations that have paved the way for radical changes in the way quality energy services can be provided to Canadians. The vision calls for greater integration of these innovations in community-wide energy systems that significantly reduce overall energy consumption.

The QUEST principles flowing from this vision are to:

- improve efficiency—first, reduce the energy input required for a given level of service;
- optimize “exergy”—avoid using high-quality energy in low-quality applications;
- manage heat—capture all feasible thermal energy and use it, rather than exhaust it;
- reduce waste—use all available resources, such as landfill gas, gas pressure drops and municipal, agricultural, industrial and forestry wastes;
- use renewable resources—tap into local biomass, geothermal, solar and wind energy; and,
- use grids strategically—optimize use of grid energy and as a resource to optimize the overall system and ensure reliability.

The Chair of QUEST is Mike Harcourt4, and it is currently governed by an advisory board of 12 to 14 people. Its supporters include BC Hydro, the Canadian Centre for Energy Information, CEA, CGA, Canadian GeoExchange Coalition, Canada Green Buildings Council, Canadian Petroleum Products Institute, Canadian Urban Institute, Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Government of British Columbia, Natural Resources Canada, Ontario Power Authority, Pollution Probe, and Transport Canada. To date, given its resources, the most critical of which seem to be in-kind human capital, QUEST has made significant progress in advancing public policy, addressing knowledge gaps, connecting decision-makers, and accelerating momentum at the national and provincial levels through a variety of activities.

November 14-15, 2007, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, a workshop was convened of over 60 key players from the energy industry, the environmental movement, three levels of government, academic and the consulting community to discuss options for reducing the environmental footprint of a growing community. The conveners were the Canada Green Building Council, CGA, CEA, the Canadian Energy Efficiency Alliance, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Industry Canada, Natural Resources Canada, the Ontario Power Authority and Pollution Probe. This first QUEST event worked toward the development of a long-term energy plan integrating the buildings, transportation and industry sectors, and the results are published in the March 2008 whitepaper.

Subsequently, three annual QUEST workshops were held—Victoria, B.C., November 24-26, 2008; Quebec City, October 25-28, 2009, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, October 12-14, 2010. Throughout the course of the three workshops, QUEST's programming has become more targeted and directed towards community needs. For example, topics at its last (fourth) workshop included moderated discussions on accelerating ICES adoption: hard policy options; gaining public acceptance to ICES-soft policy changes; early ICES success stories; mobilizing private capital; and, understanding and addressing capacity. With each workshop, knowledge among the core group has advanced, and learning from each workshop has provided a critical feedback loop for the planning and organization of the next year’s event. From the first two workshops, the conclusion was that if the agenda is left too open, the discussion centres too much around the options, rather than concentrating on the shared learning on how to implement an integrated energy system at the community level. Consequently, with respect to the third workshop, it was more targeted and focused towards the nuts and bolts of energy planning and efficiency, and two academics were brought in to help design the workshop to restructure the issues, focusing specifically, on what are the critical pieces for integration?

Critical mass has been building from one workshop to another, and often participants are the catalyst for forming the provincial caucuses. All events are by invitation only under the guidance of the core advisory group of QUEST. There is a limit of 80 people for each workshop in order to enhance discussion. Travel is reimbursed for non-government and academic participants, and industry and government participants pay their own way.

As part of its publications strategy, QUEST publishes white papers, discussion papers, presentations and reports, in addition to quarterly newsletters. Recently, its first major report was published entitled, The capacity for integrated urban energy solutions (ICES) policies to reduce urban greenhouse gas emissions. This report, prepared by one of the country’s leading energy experts, Mark Jaccard, along with input from some of the leading Canadian energy, land use and transportation experts, looked at what would happen by integrating these solutions using data from four communities—the Greater Toronto Area, Ontario; Winnipeg, Manitoba; Dawson Creek, British Columbia and Fort McMurray, Alberta, and scaled up its findings to the national level. Two QUEST white papers have also been released, March 2009 and March 2008, and one discussion paper, November, 2008.

Key presentations by QUEST members have been made to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Natural Resources for its study on the contribution of integrated approaches for providing energy services in Canadian communities; Harcourt to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce; Harcourt to Premier Selinger; Environmental Commissioner of Ontario; Alberta Utilities Commission; National Energy Board Energy Futures 2010 Conference; Federation of Canadian Municipalities Provincial Committee; Harcourt to the Canadian Energy Research Institute and the Community Energy Association; Ogilvie and Rahbar to the Finance Committee of the House of Commons; Cleland and Ogilvie to the Council of Energy Ministers, to name a few. Additional QUEST presentations have also been made at the Union of British Columbia Municipalities Annual Conference and at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario Connections Conference.

There are now regional caucuses in place across the country. Caucuses are active in British Columbia, Ontario, Nova Scotia, are emerging in Quebec, and New Brunswick has expressed interest. Each caucus has defined their own priorities. For further information, please refer to the QUEST website. QUEST is hoping to facilitate caucuses in all provinces and territories in the future.

QUEST has sharpened its focus to encompass informing policy development; building knowledge to address ‘silos’ and connect the dots between the players; operationalization in all provinces, that is bringing the key players together; “micro-matchmaking” that is project related (technology, financing options, management skills), providing access to resources and ideas normally outside of any one community’s resources; and, finally networking. One of its strategies for organization has been to identify and to address gaps, to create a synergy between events, and continue momentum for change. Essentially, QUEST is leading a social learning process coupled with increasing community engagement around social innovation concerning energy planning and energy efficiency.

Strategic Questions

  1. In what ways do you think the right people coming together at the same time in the right place was critical to the success of QUEST?
  2. How important was individual leadership to its success and in what ways?
  3. What critical skills did key individuals bring to the organization?
  4. Would QUEST benefit if it was institutionalized, and what institutional form should it take?
  5. What benefits do former civil servants and ‘recovering politicians’ bring to the table, if any?
  6. Are there key precursors to the success of QUEST?
  7. Are there emerging elements of a new governance model here?

Resources and References

Dale, A. (2001). At the edge: sustainable development in the 21st century. Vancouver: UBC Press

Seymoar, N-K., Mullard, Z., and Winstanley, M. (2009). City to city learning. Vancouver: International Centre for Sustainable Communities

1 Previously, Natural Resources Canada had established MOUs with CGA and CEA to formalize collaboration on DSM and energy efficiency. This led to the establishment of a federal/provincial/utilities DSM working group, under the Council of Energy Ministers. This set the stage for the emergence of QUEST.

2 Former Assistant Deputy Minister, Energy Policy, Natural Resources Canada

3 Ken Ogilvie, then head of Pollution Probe, had previously been the Executive Director of the Canadian Environmental Advisory Agency, involved in the formation of the New Directions Group, and a member of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.

4 Mike Harcourt who refers to himself as a recovering politician, has variously been a street front lawyer in the Downtown Eastside, Mayor of the City of Vancouver, and then Premier of British Columbia, to name only a few of his many accomplishments.