City hall has no time for sustainable energy | The Coast Halifax

City hall has no time for sustainable energy

Despite councillor and citizen interested, green power isn't a council priority.

Last year, city staff wanted to kill the hugely popular Solar City proposal, which has the city financing residential solar water heating systems). This year, staff is ignoring the desire of citizens and councillors to reduce city hall’s use of energy and replace coal-generated electricity with renewable power.

To the surprise of several councillors, the 62-page Strategic Priority Outcomes document presented to council in December fails to list “sustainable energy” as a recommended priority. This document is important because it sets the city’s course and determines where it will allocate funds for the next four years.

The oversight is surprising given that 73 percent of respondents to the 2012 citizen survey listed renewable energy projects as a priority---no other infrastructure project was mentioned as frequently. Thirty-five percent listed it as the top priority, also more than any other infrastructure issue.

“It’s funny because that survey was used and quoted by staff many times in the priorities documents,” says councillor Jennifer Watts.

Watts also notes that one of the city’s corporate goals is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and says energy conservation and increased use of renewables should be essential components of that goal. That is why she and other councillors have been working extensively on the issue at the Environment & Sustainability Committee.

“But if it’s not identified as a priority it’s hard to know if staff time and resources will be committed,” she says. “And if not, it prevents work from happening.” Watts says that council is committed to sustainable energy, as it showed recently in overriding deputy CAO Mike Labrecque’s recommendation to kill the Solar City proposal. “Solar City wouldn’t have gone anywhere at all,” Watts says. “It only happened with hard work from councillors at the last minute.”

A similar scenario is rolling out with the priorities document. While Watts notes that it was helpful to the new council, well researched and had great content on the whole, a few councillors asked that it be brought back to council with sustainable energy added. That motion was defeated.

But Ed Thornhill, Halifax’s corporate planning manager, says staff took detailed notes at the meeting and will be adding sustainable energy to the document before it goes to the audit and finance committee. He says leaving it out in the first place was a judgment call. “What is the municipal mandate in those areas? And how important is it compared to other things?”

The irony is that Halifax’s top bureaucrat, CAO Richard Butts, who signed off on the priorities document, also signed off on the City of Toronto’s sustainable energy strategy when he was that city’s deputy city manager. Toronto’s strategy is one of the more progressive municipal energy policies in Canada.

“To be clear, it wasn’t that staff doesn’t think sustainability is important,” Thornhill says. “But everything isn’t a priority. You have to balance against other needs like streetscaping, the regional plan and centre plan.” He adds that staff intended to prioritize building infrastructure in a sustainable way. For example, one recommended priority is to convert HRM’s 40,000 streetlights to legislated LED technology within a decade.

On the whole Thornhill is satisfied with the “non-scientific process” that delivered a priorities document he says wasn’t far off from what council ultimately wants. “But we left a few things out. It’s less important that we didn’t recommend it than it is what we do now.”