The little Canadian city that became an inadvertent climate leader

Summerside, P.E.I., is making big moves to get its climate change solutions off the ground

Over the last six months, Canada's National Observer has been looking into what's working and what's failing in cities across Canada as they rise to the challenge of fighting climate change. In a 13-part series, we will be taking you across the country, province by province, for a look at how cities are meeting the climate emergency with sustainable solutions.

June 15th 2021
  • Summerside, P.E.I., is a champion of renewable energy — the city has wind farms, solar arrays and the most electric vehicle chargers per capita in Canada.
  • Moving away from fossil fuels wasn’t just about reducing its carbon footprint — the city also focused on finding affordable alternatives for the community and paying for a major transition on a modest budget.
  • One of Summerside’s most promising initiatives — a smart grid that stores energy in customers’ homes when power sources overproduce — could be the key to helping smaller municipalities fund their own energy transition, one expert says.

The tiny city of Summerside, P.E.I., is known for charming waterfronts and hosting the only Walmart on the west end of the Island. It is less renowned as a champion of renewable power.

But wind farms, solar arrays, smart grids, industrial-scale lithium-ion batteries and the highest per capita concentration of electric car chargers in the country are among the clean energy initiatives blossoming in this unassuming municipality.

Summerside, population 14,829, is expected to derive the majority of its electricity from renewable sources by 2022.

Most of it will be produced within city limits.

Summerside, P.E.I., is home to renewable energy initiatives like wind farms, solar arrays, a smart grid and more. Photo by David Dodge, The Pembina Institute

Big climate goals in Canada's smallest province

P.E.I.

P.E.I. has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2040.

PEI

Summerside is only the tip of the spear in a province with the most ambitious climate goals in the country. P.E.I. has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2040 and now requires the provincial government to issue yearly reports on risks and progress. Its greenhouse gas emissions were 1,756 kilotonnes of CO2 equivalent (1.756 Mt CO2e) in 2019, and the province was listed among the few that have significantly decreased emissions — a 14 per cent reduction between 2005 and 2019, according to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.

Although per person emissions in P.E.I. are among the country’s lowest, at 12 tonnes per person, its per capita household emissions are among the worst. The province is counting on solar and wind energy to help bring that down. Wind energy now generates 24 per cent of the island’s electricity, and P.E.I. is ranked No. 2 in the country for installing solar power, thanks to a robust incentive program.

Tell us what your city is doing to become a sustainable city

Given its wholehearted embrace of wind and solar, one might expect Summerside to be a haven for renewable activism, but that’s not really the case. When faced with the need for more power, the municipal government, in 2018, considered buying a 16-megawatt diesel generator to help meet demand.

But a group of forward-thinking citizens headed off the plan and convinced the municipal council to change course. For the most part, Summerside’s shift to wind and solar has been gradual and born of necessity.

Summerside, P.E.I.

A small Canadian city, Summerside, P.E.I., is coming up with climate change solutions with a view to the future. Photo by iStock.com/ineb1599

The cheapest power in the world roars

Wind turbines

There is no coal on P.E.I., no oil and gas extraction in the surrounding Gulf of St. Lawrence and, therefore, little temptation at all to build the city or economy on a foundation of fossil fuels.

Summerside could either purchase electricity from New Brunswick or harness the cheapest power in the world, roaring in free from the Northumberland Strait.

In 2009, the city chose the latter, raising a four-turbine, 12-megawatt wind farm just north of the city, followed in 2017 by a 336-kilowatt solar array at its municipal wellness centre, Credit Union Place.

And just this year, a 21-megawatt array was announced to the city’s west, conceived in partnership with the provincial and federal governments.

This latest project, the so-called Summerside Sunbank, is equipped with a 10-megawatt lithium-ion battery storage system and will bring the share of renewable power in Summerside’s grid to 62 per cent.

A 21-megawatt solar array is in the works for Summerside, including a battery storage system. Photo courtesy of City of Summerside

Greg Gaudet is municipal services director with the City of Summerside. While he appreciates renewables in and of themselves, he wouldn’t champion them solely to cut carbon emissions, he said.

Renewables must also work for the utility and for customers, standards that have presented him and his colleagues with some interesting challenges.

“I’m an electrical engineer, so I like to push the limits of what’s technically feasible and reliable," he added.

Greg Gaudet, director of municipal services in Summerside, P.E.I. The city operates a smart grid, which controls furnaces and hot water heaters that store excess wind energy as heat for use when the wind is not blowing. Photo by David Dodge, GreenEnergyFutures.ca

The problem is always intermittency.

The wind either blows or it doesn’t, but the city’s electrical utility, Summerside Electric, must always meet demand.

The solution has traditionally been to shunt excess power to New Brunswick in times of overproduction and draw power back during underproduction, a regulatory service for which New Brunswick charges the city.

Since 2012, however, Gaudet and colleagues have been putting some of this excess power to more creative use.

There are a suite of specialized appliances in homes throughout the city that can store energy as heat rather than electricity.

These include Steffes electric furnaces, which can store heat in ceramic bricks; Rheem Marathon water heaters, which lose less than 0.25 C of heat per day; and Stash Energy heat pumps, which can store heat for upwards of four hours.

Around 450 of these appliances are at the disposal of Summerside Electric by way of a fibre-optic smart grid presently spanning 40 per cent of the city, and growing.

Climate change solutions 'replicable across North America'

North America

Whenever wind or solar overproduce, Summerside Electric converts excess power into stored thermal energy using these appliances and carries that heat into times of underproduction. This makes for an innovative solution to the intermittency of renewables and exerts a soothing influence on its electrical grid — all without the need for battery storage.

This so-called Heat for Less Now program provides all participating homes with a significant discount. “It’s replicable across North America,” Gaudet said.

The mayor looks ahead

Basil Stewart is Summerside’s mayor and has been for 31 of the last 35 years. He is as charming and personable as Islanders are fabled to be, and is a man of many metaphors, describing his acceptance of renewables as “seeing past the end of your nose,” and adding: “The days of horse and wagon are over.”

"The days of horse and wagon are over," says Basil Stewart, Summerside's mayor. Photo courtesy of City of Summerside

You’ve got to think outside the box, to be innovative, aggressive, progressive.

Basil Stewart, mayor of Summerside

He credits the city’s early start on renewables to engineers like Gaudet, but also to municipality staffers who not only seek out funding opportunities through the provincial and federal governments but ensure the city delivers on renewable projects when money shows up.

Summerside has proven itself to be a reliable investment, he said, and governments love reliable investments.

“You can do a lot with 33-cent dollars,” he said. “You’ve got to think outside the box, to be innovative, aggressive, progressive. We’re living in changing times, and you’ve got to be ready.”

The fight against diesel

Solar panels

Summerside resident Stephen Howard has been a community champion of renewable power since 2005 when he founded Renewable Lifestyles, today the single largest solar installer on P.E.I. Back then, solar was something of a long shot.

“I knew I would be doing a whole lot of talking and not much selling in the early days,” said Howard. “I started the business because I recognized there was a massive vacuum on P.E.I. where no one could go to get any kind of small-scale renewables.”

Solar technology, and public perceptions thereof, have come a long way, he said. Howard has been consulted on solar projects by the federal government, Maritime provincial governments, several regional municipalities and, of course, by Summerside, where discussions eventually led to the solar array at Credit Union Place.

In early 2018, he led a very public battle against the city’s decision to purchase the aforementioned multimillion-dollar diesel generator, a decision that was thereafter shelved. The following spring, he was elected to the legislative assembly of P.E.I. as a member of the Green Party for Summerside-South Drive, leaving his business to a trust and taking the role of transportation and energy critic.

He drives an electric 2012 Mitsubishi i-MiEV from his home in Summerside to the legislature in Charlottetown 65 kilometres away, charging in the driveway of a fellow EV owner before returning home.

Howard now participates in an unprecedented arrangement of provincial political parties that has produced some interesting results on renewable power. The same election that gave Howard his spot in the legislature also resulted in a Progressive Conservative government and Green opposition. This has never happened before.

“Having the Green opposition there has really helped press these kinds of issues to the forefront, and I think that’s why you’re seeing so much action,” said Howard.

Actions already underway include expansions to the Island’s wind capacity, the Summerside Sunbank and a 10-megawatt solar array in the Slemon Park area.

As well, the province has committed to electrifying the entirety of its bus fleet, for schools and possibly public transit.

The first 12 fully electric buses, purchased from the Quebec company Lion Electric, are expected to arrive this fall.

The Greens have had their say in these initiatives, strengthening targets and consulting experts, but the Progressive Conservatives have proven themselves independently receptive to the promise of renewable power.

Electric buses made by Quebec's Lion Electric are coming to Summerside, moving the city towards its own contribution to climate change solutions. Photo by Lion Electric

P.E.I. aims for a net-zero electric grid

Electric grid

P.E.I. presently produces about 25 per cent of its own electricity, said Steven Myers, the province's minister of transportation and energy. And while the province still intends to purchase power from off-Island, perhaps from predominantly hydroelectric jurisdictions like Quebec or Newfoundland, he hopes the rest will come from Island communities themselves.

The Sustainable Communities Initiative was announced in November 2019, inviting municipalities to propose renewable power projects to the provincial government for the chance of financial support. COVID-19 stole the show shortly after this initiative was announced, but two communities still have very promising proposals on the table. One, said Myers, is suggesting a combination of wind and solar, paired with hydrogen energy storage.

I’m old enough to remember the VCR and microwave oven, and how that changed our lives. Renewables are like that, except much bigger.

Steven Myers, P.E.I. minister of transportation and energy

The largest single emitter of carbon on P.E.I. (44 per cent) is the transportation sector, and a major hurdle in achieving a net-zero province by 2040. Howard said rebates for the purchase of electric vehicles will be essential, something he has been insisting on since taking office. In March, the provincial government announced an incentive providing Islanders with $5,000 to buy a new or used electric vehicle and $2,500 to those who purchase a plug-in hybrid.

“We know that one of the main hurdles for Islanders to switch to an electric vehicle is the high cost,” Myers said in March when the rebate was announced. “With that in mind, we are launching an EV incentive in an effort to increase uptake and, in return, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from our transportation sector.”

So far, the program has been a hit, with almost half its funds spent to date. Only recently, Myers himself drove an electric car from one tip of P.E.I. to the other (255 kilometres); it cost him $7.

“That’s a pretty paltry amount of money to drive from North Cape to East Point,” he said. “You’re talking 1980s prices as far as gas goes. I’m old enough to remember the VCR and microwave oven, and how that changed our lives. Renewables are like that, except much bigger.”

The sheer volume of projects necessary to achieve net zero on P.E.I. by 2040 will require a larger workforce than presently exists in the province, said Howard, and they’ll need to be deployed at breakneck speed. He foresees many initiatives coming hand in hand, like using the batteries of electric cars to balance the load of intermittent wind and solar.

The Summerside model for tackling the climate crisis

Andrew Swingler, an associate professor of sustainable energy systems at the University of Prince Edward Island, isn’t sure what to make of the Island’s 2030 and 2040 goals because government documents published thus far don’t detail how it is to be achieved.

What he’s seen is sizable investment in large-scale wind and solar with accompanying battery storage, often with substantial support from the federal government, such as with the Summerside Sunbank. If the province is to fund its own transition, however, it might need a fundamentally different approach.

Swingler recommends the modification of electricity pricing mechanisms to maximize the benefits of renewables.

Wind and solar provide the cheapest electricity in the world, he said (five cents per kilowatt-hour), so when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, electrical utilities on P.E.I. should be prepared to offer exactly that price to customers, demonstrating the value of renewables and encouraging investment at the residential and community levels, rather than relying solely on the federal government to fund large projects.

The control centre at Summerside Electric monitors all of its electricity production, including wind power. Photos by David Dodge, GreenEnergyFutures.ca

The best example of this on P.E.I. is the Heat for Less Now program in Summerside, he said, utilizing its growing smart grid to connect customers directly with extremely cheap wind and rewarding them with dramatically reduced rates. This approach is not only financially sustainable but encourages community participation. For these reasons, he’s more enthusiastic about expansions to Summerside’s smart grid program than for the Summerside Sunbank.

“I have been impressed by the City of Summerside’s ability to take leadership positions on reasonably holistic renewable energy initiatives,” said Swingler.

“In particular, I think Summerside’s early work experimenting with wind-matching thermal storage systems located in customer homes has a lot of potential for moving Atlantic Canada away from heating with oil and towards heating with wind. But there is a lot more work to be done."

P.E.I. Premier Dennis King doubtless knew he was setting his sights high when he announced the province would achieve a “net-zero” electrical grid by 2030 and a net-zero province (cars, furnaces and all) by 2040.

His transportation and energy minister said it out loud. “We acknowledge this as an aggressive target,” Myers said.

But the competitive spirit in this tiny Maritime province runs high. "We want to get there before anyone else in Canada," Myers said. "And I think we can.”

I suspect renewables start to look particularly good when you're looking at alternatives like importing masses of diesel to an island for generators. Come to that, I expect the price of gasoline is pretty high in a place like PEI.
Come to think of it, renewables would go very well with reconciliation--the federal government should be mounting a major push to get local renewable power, charging stations and electric vehicles to reservations, reducing their costs and increasing their self sufficiency.

Several First Nations in BC have proposed large-scale solar and wind farms, but the buy-in from BC Hydro has not been there. Feed-in tariffs are key. They have to be low enough to maintain consumer demand yet high enough that the suppliers can make a reasonable profit.

The previous government set up Hydro to absorb very high contract prices over extended periods for run-of-river generation by private power companies, not surprisingly many of them were their buddies in the corporate sector. This has tainted the advent of current and future solar and wind contracts with private and Indigenous power generation. There has to be another way.