Grassroots organizations lead the way
By Eric Stark
Over the years, burning carbon has become
an entrenched part of the way we conduct
our lives—part of our culture, so to speak.
But as now face the consequences of
this mindset, a shift is emerging, mainly
through the initiatives of individuals and
grassroots organizations. Large corporations
(concerned solely with maximizing financial
returns) conduct the bulk of our economic
affairs, shielding investors from personal
involvement and responsibility. So it’s not
surprising that community concerns and
environmental outcomes fail to top their
agendas. But are there options for average
citizens who wish to stand up for their
communities, both locally and globally, and
who are disconnected from massive pools of
One alternative is the cooperative model, which is based on seven guiding principles:
• Voluntary and open membership
• Democratic member control
• Member economic participation
• Autonomy and independence
• Education, training, and information
• Cooperation among cooperatives
• Concern for community
In 1998, a group of citizens in Toronto formed a renewable energy cooperative called Toronto Renewable Energy Cooperative (TREC), and together with Toronto Hydro, helped erect Ontario’s first urban wind turbine at the CNE grounds. The turbine began generating electricity in 2003, supplying the needs of about 100 homes with carbonfree, nuclear-free energy. Since then it has served as an example of what can be achieved if we set our minds to it. After this success, TREC had hoped to install a 20 MW wind project known as Lakewind near Kincardine. This was projected to generate enough electricity to power about 13,000 homes. However, more than six years of effort to move the project forward appear to have been in vain, as the Ontario Power Authority has not granted it a Feed-in Tariff contract, claiming that allowing it access to the grid would currently be too costly. And the terms of the Ontario government’s latest version of the FIT program aren’t likely to allow it the opportunity to proceed in the future either.
TREC’s solar division, SolarShare has had better fortune. Founded in 2010, it has grown to more than 500 community members. It currently has 19 solar projects with over 750 KW of installed power generation capacity. This summer it was awarded FIT contract offers on 13 new rooftop solar projects in Ontario, which will make it Canada’s largest solar power cooperative. SolarShare gives everyone in Ontario the opportunity to invest in community-based solar power projects in the province. It currently costs $40 to become a SolarShare member, which allows you to invest in its bonds, which range in value between $1000 and $100,000, and yield 5 per cent interest.
Education is an important aspect of TREC as well—its education division is a registered charity that provides fun and creative programs involving renewable energy and conservation for schools and community events. Every year since 2008, it has organized the Kids’ World of Energy Festival, giving opportunities to students and the general public to participate in a variety of activities and hands-on workshops. TREC Education, along with sponsorship from the Bluffs Advocate, has been instrumental in offering a summer camp program in eco-leadership for children 9 to 13 years of age in our community.
TREC is but one of many renewable energy co-ops around the province. Another example is one that was formed by a group of parents of the students at Kew Beach Public School, together with neighbours in the area. The group, called the Beach Community Energy Cooperative, focused initially on an application for a FIT contract to mount community-owned solar panels on the school building, which would generate about 60 KW of renewable energy. The application was recently rejected by the Ontario Power Authority, but the co-op re-applied on December 15, 2013. For those interested, membership in this group costs $10, which allows you the opportunity to join a working group, vote at its annual general meeting, and invest further in the cooperative. Full disclosure: The treasurer of the Beach Community Energy Co-op is also the General Manager of the Bluffs Advocate, Robert Spencer.
Another cooperative making local efforts is called 350.org (check out its website, and that of its local branch, toronto350.org). On May 5, 2012 local resident Laurel Thompson organized an event at Scarborough’s Cathedral Bluffs Park called “Talk about Climate Change” as part of 350.org’s “Connect the Dots” campaign. This included events in local communities all over the world, designed to make connections between a worsening trend of extreme weather events and fossil fuel consumption. After Laurel gave an opening presentation, a small, but thoroughly engaged crowd heard from three experts: one from the Toronto Field Naturalists, one from the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, and one from Scarborough Transit Action. It was a small step, but an important one in creating awareness. This year, on October 15, toronto350.org organized a showing of the documentary movie “Do the Math” at the Bloor Cinema, after which questions were answered by a panel including Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, Adria Vasil author of a series of Ecoholic books that help consumers choose products with low carbon footprints, and toronto350’s former president, Milan Ilnyckyj.
(In case you’re wondering, the name of this group comes from 350 parts per million (ppm)—the amount of carbon in the atmosphere that climatologist James Hansen believes is the upper limit we can have, while still ensuring global climate stability. We have recently reached 400 ppm.)
Finally, the Bluffs Advocate’s summer edition featured Cheryl McNamara, group leader of the Toronto chapter of the Citizen’s Climate Lobby. The CCL has over a hundred chapters throughout North America that advocate for action against climate change by eliminating government subsidies to fossil fuel companies, and implementing the Fee and Dividend method of carbon pricing.
If Fee and Dividend were implemented, carbon production would be taxed at the mine or well-head or port of entry. All of the money raised in this way would then be divided evenly and distributed to all residents in the form of monthly dividend payments. That way, if the tax were embodied in the goods that we bought, energy savers would keep more of their dividend payments (by avoiding fossil fuel products), while energy wasters would end up with less, and everybody would have an incentive to shift towards greener products. As consumer demand gradually shifted, business investment would follow suit, moving away from extracting resources that contribute to climate change.
There are many co-ops out there, each with a unique perspective on these all-important environmental issues. With a little research, you may be able to participate and focus your own efforts in the direction you feel would be most meaningful to you.