Photo: Jd.101, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Icon: solar energy by Srinivas Agra from the Noun Project

Regina Municipal Election 2020: Environment & Sustainability

In preparation for Regina’s 2020 municipal election, the Sask Dispatch asked progressive community members, activists, and experts to pick one pressing issue facing the city, and write about how to address it. Saba Dar, an environmental journalist, reports on activists’ vision for a truly renewable Regina.

While scientists are busy frantically churning out research papers cautioning against the natural ecosystems’ looming ‘threshold levels’ and ‘tipping points,’ many countries – particularly those most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions – continue to grossly understate the magnitude of the urgency. Despite copious evidence, skepticism on climate change abounds. 

When it comes to Saskatchewan, the case is even more intriguing. The province is already home to one of the world’s most naturally variable climates and any climatic variations beyond the norm would not be immediately noticeable – at least not until it’s too late. But subtle manifestations of climatic changes taking place in the province have already been documented. David Sauchyn, director of the Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative (PARC), says in a 2019 climate assessment report that there is evidence that Saskatchewan is gradually becoming less cold. This may initially come across as good news, as warmer overall temperatures could contribute to a longer growing season and a more enjoyable climate, but the devil’s in the detail. According to PARC’s report, less harsh winters mean we are losing some of the advantages of a cold winter – the most significant of which are limiting pests and diseases which are usually killed off by subzero temperatures, and snow reserves, which provide the most “abundant and reliable source of water” in the region. In Regina alone, the daily average minimum temperature during winter has increased steadily from 1900-2019. A predominantly agricultural province with 40 per cent of Canada’s cultivated farmland, Saskatchewan’s landscape and produce – and, by extension, its economy – are extremely vulnerable to any fluctuations in the climate. 

A predominantly agricultural province with 40 per cent of Canada’s cultivated farmland, Saskatchewan’s landscape and produce – and, by extension, its economy – are extremely vulnerable to any fluctuations in the climate. 

Back in October 2018, amid hearty applause and a standing ovation, the City of Regina passed a promising motion to shift the entire city to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050; a dramatic leap from the city’s current renewable energy ratio of around 23 per cent. In the moment, it felt like a remarkable feat. After all, sustainability can only be achieved when all levels of government push for it.  But since then the goal has been stripped to a bare minimum. Two years have gone by since the motion was passed, and no tangible progress has been made. Shanon Zachidniak, the founder of Regina-based environmental organization EnviroCollective, and a candidate for city councillor in Ward 8, believes that “it appears that some councillors and the mayor have lost their courage over time. These folks are now acting to delay progress toward that goal and water down the targets.”

The motion tasked the city administration with putting together a framework including at least four new and concrete actions for improving the environmental sustainability of the City of Regina. But the “Energy and Sustainability Framework Update” that was presented at the Priorities and Planning Committee meeting in June 2020 disappointed environmentalists and activists. Josh Campbell, President of the Wascana Solar Coop (WSC), says the update twisted the language of the initial motion in order to limit the scope of the plan. “At first they made this about the whole city, but then back-peddled and made it about city infrastructure. […] They are just dragging feet,” he tells the Sask Dispatch

Emily Eaton, associate professor in the department of geography and environmental studies at University of Regina, also expressed her disappointment that it’s been Mayor Michael Fougere who has been standing in the way of the success of this motion. “He has tried to confine its scope and reduce the commitment to just the city operations, rather than renewability community-wide,” Eaton says. “At every turn he has tried to invite and include the fossil fuel industries, which have no place in a renewable future. He is obviously being influenced by the significant fossil fuel lobby in our province.”

“[Mayor Fougere] has tried to confine its scope and reduce the commitment to just the city operations, rather than renewability community-wide,” Eaton says. “At every turn he has tried to invite and include the fossil fuel industries, which have no place in a renewable future. He is obviously being influenced by the significant fossil fuel lobby in our province.”

The framework update also suggested hosting an Energy and Sustainability Conference in May 2020 to provide a foundation for the development of the framework. However, the city’s decision to invite Patrick Moore, a Canadian nuclear energy advocate and climate science denier, ignited a fierce controversy, leading to Moore’s eventual removal from the speakers’ list. The conference has been postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19.

Noting the divergence from the original motion of “community-wide” transition, the city’s Priorities and Planning Committee directed the city administration to revisit the document and include, among other things, “city and municipal wide action plans, with specific and aggressive timelines.” The amended document was presented to the committee in September 2020 and was subsequently passed. It is now in line for approval at the city council meeting on October 28, 2020.  

Transitioning slowly to renewable energy isn’t really a progressive move on Regina’s part, Eaton says. “Saskatchewan has the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita in the whole world. The newest research is saying that even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) targets of zero emissions by 2050 might be too late to prevent catastrophic climate change. So Regina's target is conservative, not ambitious.”

"The newest research is saying that even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) targets of zero emissions by 2050 might be too late to prevent catastrophic climate change. So Regina's target is conservative, not ambitious.”

But there are plenty of alternatives. Located in the one of the sunniest provinces in Canada, Regina is uniquely endowed with an ample capacity to generate solar energy. Moreover, the city’s wind speed averages at around 10 miles per hour for eight months each year, making it an excellent candidate for harnessing wind energy. Contemporary wind turbines have been designed to generate electricity even with wind speeds averaging six to nine miles per hour. 

Yet the province is backtracking on the progress made on the solar energy front. Campbell is dismayed that SaskPower changed the Net Metering Program, which allows residents to generate renewable electricity primarily for their own use, with excess energy sent to the grid. In November 2019, in response to a spike in interest, SaskPower eliminated a subsidy that gave rebates on capital equipment and installations, and slashed the price they paid for excess energy. 

“[Solar energy] was very doable for a lot of people under the previous program that the provincial government had in place. When it comes to individuals accessing solar energy, it has to be done through SaskPower,” Campbell says, adding that the province’s decision has limited municipalities’ ability to act on climate change. “Now you are treading into provincial territory and not municipal.” 

He believes that now it makes little economic sense to people to get into solar energy. “It’s still possible but your buyback time is extended now. The reduction in that program was significant – it went from 14 cents/kWh to 7.5 cents/kWh). It’s almost half. [The] provincial rebate was taken away too, which was expected.” He holds the restructuring responsible for residents’ plunging interest in solar energy.  He added that the number of applications for solar panels has declined from 721 under the old program to 118 under the new program over a comparable eight-month time period.

“Our current mayor is quite sympathetic to the oil and gas industry, so if we get a mayor there who is more interested in solar that would be great, but I do question how much power they would have to make these changes at [the] SaskPower level.” 

Could a new city administration salvage the solar industry? Campbell is not fully convinced: “Our current mayor is quite sympathetic to the oil and gas industry, so if we get a mayor there who is more interested in solar that would be great, but I do question how much power they would have to make these changes at [the] SaskPower level.” 

Campbell suggests that the best way to work around what he calls the “intimidating upfront cost” of installing solar panels is by getting SaskPower to offer a lease program similar to the one offered by the Sask NDP for the electrification of rural communities years ago. “The Crown would purchase the solar systems to go onto people’s houses and lease it to the owner as an additional amount on their power bill every month. Eventually that person would own the system and SaskPower will get their money back for it.” 

While there are piecemeal efforts to increase the fraction of renewable energy in Regina’s energy mix, they’ve been half-hearted at best. Eaton believes now is the time to bring new faces onto city council “with expertise on transition.” 

“As an oil-producing province run by conservative and neoliberal politicians, we have experienced decades of climate delay and the fossil fuel industries have been able to successfully obstruct meaningful dialogue … on climate. If we had a strong resident-led movement pushing decision-makers to act, we could get to 100 per cent renewable before the 2050 deadline,” she says. Eaton denounces the government’s decision to pursue projects like carbon capture and storage and small modular reactors, which she calls “risky” and “unproven,” and ultimately incompatible with achieving 100 per cent renewable energy. 

“As an oil-producing province run by conservative and neoliberal politicians, we have experienced decades of climate delay and the fossil fuel industries have been able to successfully obstruct meaningful dialogue … on climate. If we had a strong resident-led movement pushing decision-makers to act, we could get to 100 per cent renewable before the 2050 deadline.”

The vision of a renewable Regina won’t be achieved without dedicated support from residents. Eaton believes that residents have “been very effective in their advocacy on this motion [and] holding the city's feet to the fire.” She adds, “they also need to get involved in the planned consultations and engagement that the city will be undertaking.” Eaton believes that an “organized public movement” is needed to hold the city accountable, but pressure will need to be placed on the province as well. In terms of solar energy, Campbell believes that “without provincial support, solar is going to be much tougher.”

It’s important for the city to learn from other municipalities who are ahead of the curve when it comes to renewable energy, to fully grasp the social and economic implications of different policy tools. Eaton explains that “Saskatoon is much further along its journey than Regina. They already have a plan that will see 80 per cent reductions of emissions by 2050 within city operations and also community-wide. Saskatoon has chosen to use the metric of GHG [greenhouse gas] reductions rather than renewability, and I think this is smart. They are already acting, for example bringing in bus rapid transit and working to change municipal efficiency standards.” 

Campbell agrees that “in terms of sustainability [Saskatoon is] really ahead of us.” He commended Saskatoon’s city council for being forthcoming and collaborating with community stakeholders. He cites Saskatoon’s partnership with the Saskatchewan Environmental Society (SES) Solar Co-operative Ltd. for the installation of solar panels to power the landfill gas generation station, which helps recover methane gas, saving tonnes of greenhouse gases from going back to the atmosphere. Campbell was keen to replicate the project at Regina’s landfill site; but his efforts to reach out to the city were in vain. He believes there is a “big” communication gap between the city and the community in Regina.

With Regina’s 2020 municipal election around the corner, the candidates running for city council are busy pushing their manifestos. Jim Elliott, who previously ran for mayor in 2012 and 2016, announced his candidacy again this year. His campaign centres on climate change, and when asked how he would ensure a smooth transition to renewable energy if he were elected, he told the Sask Dispatch, “this would be driven by the energy and sustainability framework currently proposed by our city administration. It would include a very robust engagement of the public, especially our youth [as well as] look[ing] at the role of the private sector investment, both personal and corporate.  And lastly, as was provided to the city last week, a need for an equity lens on the barriers for participation and capacity of the Regina resident to be part of the solution.  Each piece would have a timeline, whether incremental or one-time cost.” 

“Saskatoon is much further along its journey than Regina. They already have a plan that will see 80 per cent reductions of emissions by 2050 within city operations and also community-wide."

Elliot is referring to a recently published study called “Renewable Regina: Putting Equity into Action,” authored by Eaton and Simon Enoch, Director of the Saskatchewan branch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Shanon Zachidniak, who is running for council, helped conduct focus groups for the study. Campbell believes Elliot will be a good fit for the role of mayor. He adds that George Wooldridge, another mayoral candidate, might also lend support to environmental reforms. Eaton, on the other hand, believes “Councillors Stevens and Hawkins have been the biggest champions of the [Renewable Regina] motion and they have had to work hard to keep the original intent and spirit of the motion from being eroded by the mayor. New candidates who I think will help to champion the implementation of this motion in ways that increase equity and justice in the city include Cheryl Stadnichuk [in Ward 1], Shanon Zachidniak [in Ward 8], Dan LeBlanc [in Ward 6], and Shobna Radons [in Ward 7].”

While speaking about her campaign, Zachidniak says, “One lesson for me is that once momentum has been generated toward an ambitious goal, it's important to harness that energy and keep demonstrating progress to maintain momentum.” If elected, she plans to “prioritize the development of a sustainability advisory committee, with residents who have expertise and lived experience regarding sustainability concerns and solutions [and] prioritize a renewable city and support grants for renewable energy infrastructure.” Bob Hawkins, who is running for re-election in Ward 2, told the Sask Dispatch that he is a “keen supporter” of the Renewable Regina motion and “strongly committed to realizing” renewable energy and conservation initiatives. Hawkins introduced a plastic bag ban that is set to go into effect in 2021. Other candidates did not respond to the Dispatch’s request for comment. 

Eaton’s vision of success, echoing the findings of her report, includes “an energy transition strategy that puts communities that have experienced marginalization at the center. We want Indigenous, disabled, 2SLGBTQ+, newcomer, youth, senior, and low-income communities to benefit first from the investments that the city will make to become 100 per cent renewable. We would like to see phased in free transit, rental housing that is retrofitted for energy efficiency and the comfort of residents, money flowing to groups that cannot afford energy retrofits or solar panels to help them make these shifts, and attention paid to increasing the accessibility and safety of public transit, walking, and cycling.” To Campbell, success would look like at least a thousand solar panels installed in the city over the course of next two years. 

“One lesson for me is that once momentum has been generated toward an ambitious goal, it's important to harness that energy and keep demonstrating progress to maintain momentum.”

Traditionally, municipal elections are accompanied by less fanfare than federal or provincial elections. In fact, the 2016 municipal elections in Regina saw the lowest voter turnout since 1948, with a dismal 20 per cent of eligible voters showing up at the polls. Despite this lack of interest in municipal governance, local governments’ policies have direct impacts on citizens’ daily lives, especially when it comes to environmental and sustainability issues. As candidates warm up for local elections this fall, let’s hope whoever wins, the ultimate win is for the sustainable future of Regina.

Saba Dar is a freelance writer and has worked on a number of environmental projects related to water conservation and water stewardship.

Tags:   activism elections environment government regina

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