Ask the Expert National Conference spotlight: Harry French and Teresa Miller explain Community-Based Renewable Power

They say think globally, and act locally when it comes to environmental change – an idea that is being put into practice by two of this year’s CaGBC National Conference & Expo speakers: Harry French, Director of Community Power Services Group, and Teresa Miller, Vice President, Beach Community Power Association. They are the driving force behind a local Toronto initiative to bring community-based renewable power to their neighbourhood through a Renewable Energy Co-operative.

Their first project will be adding a solar roof to the Kew Beach Junior Public School on Kippendavie Avenue, a Toronto District School Board school that is very engaged when it comes to environmental initiatives. While the school had enough funding for half of a solar roof, they needed the support of the community to complete the project. With the help of this co-operative, Kew Beach will hopefully have a full solar roof by the end of next year.

We spoke to Teresa and Harry about how they are getting citizens involved in a tangible energy saving project on the local level, and also about their session Building Local Resilience: Community-Based Renewable Power taking place at this year’s CaGBC National Conference.

1) Tell me a little bit about yourselves, what your background is and how you got involved in sustainable practices like this community project.

Teresa: I found my true passion when I discovered sustainability as a professional avenue that combines environmental considerations with day-to-day actions in work and at home. Most recently, I worked executing LEED for Existing Buildings certifications for large commercial properties. I also have a keen interest in sharing some of my knowledge in my local community. I was put in touch with another board member in the early stages of the project and was immediately hooked. There aren't a lot of solar renewable energy projects in the city, so this was a very unique opportunity I felt that I could contribute towards.

Harry: After receiving two graduate degrees, I decided that community owned renewable energy through a co-operative model was where my career experience came together. My 10 years with the consulting firm Marshall Macklin Monaghan (Now MMM) also built my comfort in dealing with engineering and project management issues, and that is the nature of community power – working with people, addressing environmental sustainability opportunities and understanding the technical engineering and management complexities of getting a project off the ground. What I am doing now brought it to the ground, literally – community power is about building community resiliency – there is a lot of hand holding to get community groups through the initial stages.

2) Can you explain a bit about what a solar co-operative is and how it benefits a community?

A solar co-operative falls into the Renewable Energy Co-operative group that includes other energy sources like wind. It is a specific kind of co-operative recently developed that increases the community level impact of the Green Energy Act. The co-operative functions as an investment opportunity for local residents that either can't afford to do their own project or don't have the appropriate property.

Benefits to the community are wide reaching. Community members benefit financially and there is also an increased pride when you can walk past a project you helped to build. It brings community members together as investment is limited to specific value per individual. You therefore need more people on board and connected to make the project succeed.

3) Have you found the experience of this initial project to be a good one, in terms of getting members of the community/school board/others interested and involved?

It has been amazing to see how committed a large body like the Toronto District School board has been. It hasn't been easy as we are creating new ground, but the energy and drive to see the project through has been impressive. Locally, we have received great enthusiasm from most conversations we have. We are in the midst of developing our marketing strategy, so will be launching a formal program of membership and investment opportunities in the next few months. Very exciting times for us.

4) You are both speaking at this year’s CaGBC National Conference – why did you decide to speak and what do you think attendees will learn from your session?

Teresa: Having attended this conference last year, I was very impressed with the calibre and wide range of topics. Also having worked on commercial buildings on an operations and maintenance level, I was interested in introducing this type of project to a crowd that could be enabled to see potential in their own buildings.

The people who attend this conference are committed to sustainability but are often limited by budget. With the use of a co-operative model, the idle roof on someone’s warehouse could become the next home of a community co-operative. There is a financial benefit to the roof owner through common leasing agreements and a community group that gets to build a project together, benefit financially and reduce the environmental impacts of energy use.

It’s not too late to register for this year’s CaGBC National Conference & Expo, taking place June 11-13 in Toronto. Hear Harry and Teresa speak on June 13 at 9:45 a.m. and you’ll also earn one GBCI CE hour for attending.

For more information on the Conference, visit www.cagbc.org/2012conference today.