On a small island, and in an even smaller city, a major energy revolution is taking form — and it’s all because of a will by the people who live there to do things a little bit differently.
From wind farms to giant solar parks, big things are happening in Summerside, PEI, a city on the East Coast of Canada with a can-do attitude, and a will to act as a case study for the rest of the country on how to unleash the renewable energy revolution.
The community’s signature project is a $69-million, 80-acre solar project that will be going online later this year.
It’s called the Summerside Sunbank and once it’s fully operational, about 65 per cent of Summerside’s power will come from renewable energy produced locally. That’s a remarkable feat for any city in Canada, especially one as small as Summerside.
The Sunbank project, along with a host of other energy and smart grid initiatives, reflects a spirit of independence that residents are proud of here.
Greg Gaudet, an electrical engineer and Director of Summerside Electric, simply calls it “autonomy” — not relying on global energy markets, which can take wild swings “based on what’s happening in the world.”
As for the can-do attitude, the mayor, Basil Stewart, says, “Things won’t happen on their own; you’ve got to make them happen.” Always quick to reach for a metaphor, Stewart, who’s served as mayor of Summerside for over three decades, says he likes to think of himself and his team as “work horses, not show horses.”
Summerside is a town of 16,000 along one of the narrowest stretches of Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province. It’s just four kilometres from the north shore of the Island to the south.
Surrounded on both sides by the sea, there is an abundance of wind and solar energy on the Island — and therein an economic opportunity that this unassuming little community has been taking advantage of for the past few years.
It’s now keen to show the rest of Canada — and the world — how it can be done.
For decades, Summerside relied on electricity transmitted via an underwater cable from New Brunswick, just across the Northumberland Strait.
But the city wanted to break free of its need to rely on other provinces for its power supply, and with wind and solar, it saw an opportunity to do so.
Summerside was in a unique position because it owns its own electrical utility. It means the residents are the owners and can determine their own energy future. “We have our own electrical utility, and we’ve had it for a hundred years,” says Stewart.
Combine that with an ambitious push by city officials to seek out federal and provincial money for renewable energy projects, and the city made the push for energy autonomy.
“The horse and wagon still may be allowed on the road,” Stewart adds, referring to energy systems of the past, “but the chances of getting run over are much more often now with the way the world is changing.”
It’s a lesson countries like Germany and the Netherlands are learning the hard way right now. They have long depended on imports of Russian gas, but with Moscow largely isolated by Western nations, there are fears the Kremlin could turn the taps to Europe off at any time.
Marlene Campbell, a programming coordinator with the city’s cultural office, recently co-authored a book documenting the 100-year history of Summerside Electric, the municipally-owned power utility.
The book, titled Lighting the Way: The Story of Summerside Electric, 1920-2020, details how as far back as 1928, energy companies from outside Summerside were trying to convince residents that they were “getting a bad deal” with their municipal power plant.
But true to the ‘get it done’ attitude of residents, the town stuck to its guns and held on to its locally owned and operated facility.
In the ensuing decades, the local plant became a huge point of pride, and it’s stayed that way. But people had to fight for it.
“Having the utility has allowed Summerside citizens to have so many of the benefits that they otherwise wouldn’t experience,” Campbell told Global News. These include a major restoration of the boardwalk, gleaming recreational facilities, and electricity rates that are a fraction of the cost they would be if Summerside were importing more of its power from out of town.
It’s a model that’s “community minded” and “business minded,” says Bobby Dunn, the business development and sales manager for the electric utility company.
Dunn is responsible for rolling out a smart-grid program that uses specially-designed appliances like furnaces and water heaters in residents’ homes to store excess energy in the form of heat.
The “Heat for Less” program essentially allows these appliances to double up as batteries — storing excess energy inside people’s homes, and feeding the city’s energy grid in times of need, including when the sun isn’t shining or the wind blowing.
“Our goal was to keep that energy in the community,” says Dunn.
The fact that excess energy is kept in ‘reserve’ allows Summerside Electric to offer residents electricity at about half the going rate elsewhere, Dunn says.
The system benefits the community much like cash savings in your bank account would benefit you in a time of need.
It’s also a business strategy.
“Summerside,” says Steven Myers, the provincial energy minister, is the “gold standard for energy transition.”
The Samsø model
Summerside isn’t the first small municipality to try and go 100-per cent renewable in short order.
Twenty-five years ago, the community of Samsø, located on a tiny island off the mainland of Denmark, decided it would usher in a rapid shift to renewables. Like PEI, most of Samsø’s power came via an underwater cable and was generated by burning fossil fuels, mostly coal.
But Samsø decided early on it would shift — investing in both on-shore and off-shore wind, as well as solar farms. Like in Summerside, it committed to investing whatever revenue was generated from those facilities back into the community. By 2007, Samsø was producing enough power through renewables to offset whatever fossil fuel emissions were still being generated.
Prince Edward Island, like Samsø, wants to become as self-sufficient as possible. In 2019, energy officials visited Denmark to learn how another island community managed to use the power of sun and wind in their own backyard to keep the lights on.
The key to Samsø’s success, Myers recounts from his visit, is that its citizens were given a stake in the transition.
“They felt like it was their windmill, not just some entity’s windmill,” Myers says. That’s precisely what’s happened in Summerside.
“When residents can see where the money has gone, it gives you a better social licence to continue to build.”
And that’s what’s been happening in Summerside, says the mayor.
“A municipality is no different than any other business. If you’re not moving ahead, you’re moving back.”