Joanna Burris is well acquainted with the Salmon River, which runs through central Colchester and the town of Truro before rising up into the Cobequid Hills, descending through a valley and finally emptying into the Bay of Fundy.

Growing up in the community of Bible Hill, outside of Truro, she remembers water rushing through the floodplains during high rainfall or snow melt runoff. But in the decades since then, she’s witnessed something that worries her: increased flooding activity.

“When you live in a place, you start to experience how climate change is impacting that place,” says Burris. “A lot of these impacts at this point are inevitable. We’re going to continue to have hotter summers, have more extreme precipitation events and wildfires. But in the long term, if we can reduce our emissions, then the impacts won’t be as severe.”

Seeing these climate-related changes in her community made Burris want to help — and she knew she had the skills to make a difference. Equipped with a planning degree from Dalhousie University, she was hired as the Municipality of Colchester’s first sustainability planner.

Sarah Lynds (right), PACE Program co-ordinator, and Joanna Burris in front of a ground-mount solar array. Photo courtesy of Joanna Burris

For close to six years, she has led the county toward a greener future by building partnerships, engaging stakeholders and helping homeowners reduce their carbon footprint. She wants to help everyone play a role in the municipality’s transition to renewable energy and eventual goal of meeting its net-zero emissions target by 2050.

Long before she came on board, Colchester Council had already laid the essential groundwork for their current programs. In 2009, it adopted a vision statement for a sustainable future for Colchester County, drawing inspiration from the United Nations’ principles for thriving, green communities. At the time, municipalities across Canada were developing integrated sustainability plans to gain access to federal gas tax funds, says Burris. The funds were for environmentally sustainable infrastructure projects — including wastewater management, public transit and community energy systems.

In Nova Scotia, Colchester was ahead of the sustainability curve when, in 2012, it announced that it was building a compost facility to extend the life of landfills, protect the environment and turn waste into a valuable resource.

Burris, who was initially hired to get Solar Colchester off the ground for homeowners, says that in 2019, a pilot project started providing low-interest financing for homeowners looking to install solar panels. Throughout the municipality, solar panels started going up on municipal buildings, the goal of which was (and is) to have all the buildings at net-zero emissions by 2035 — through solar and retrofits.

The municipality’s innovative and essentially cost-free retrofit programs are making life cheaper for many Colchester homeowners while also lowering a home’s carbon footprint.

In 2021, Solar Colchester expanded to include more homeowners by offering another low-interest financing program called Cozy Colchester, which allows local homeowners to make energy efficiency upgrades to their homes. For some homes, solar doesn’t make sense — but other energy efficiency improvements do. Participants in the programs receive financing for up to $30,000 and can pay for the project over a 10- to 15-year term. They are also eligible for rebates from Efficiency Nova Scotia.

Even with rebates, many homeowners don’t have the upfront money to invest in energy efficiency. That’s what makes Solar Colchester and Cozy Colchester unique. They’re examples of programs that fall under Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), where the municipality pays for the retrofits upfront and the homeowners pay back the cost of the retrofits over time.

“It does allow people to switch from oil to heat pumps. Some people replace their doors and windows and add insulation. It does provide a good amount to do those initial steps,” says Burris. “And in most cases, the savings are greater than the (monthly) payments.”

A win-win any way you cut it, these essentially cost-free upgrades not only make houses warmer, they also have the added benefit of reducing a home’s carbon footprint.

A family’s solar PV installation on their house in Valley, Nova Scotia, which was financed through Solar Colchester. Photo courtesy of Joanna Burris

Since 2019, 246 home efficiency projects, including solar and retrofits, have been financed through the programs. Since 2021, an impressive 430 free home energy assessments have also been provided.

Ted Parker looks forward to substantial energy savings and increased comfort next winter in his 50-year-old home in Lower Economy. Thanks to the Cozy Colchester program, this past March he was able to install a heat pump — a replacement for his wood stove and costly backup electric baseboard heaters. And at age 78, Parker says hauling wood for the stove had also gotten to be too much for him.

“We’d been looking at heat pumps for years,” he says. “The loan with Cozy Colchester helped.”

Parker has now turned his attention to insulating part of his home with spray foam. With the help of Cozy Colchester he expects to save more than $600 on the cost of the project.

“We’ve had a lot of positive feedback,” says Burris. “People appreciate that the program is connected to the municipal government because it’s where they pay their taxes and, overall, they have trust in their local government.”

The Climate Story Network is an initiative of Climate Focus, a non-profit organization dedicated to covering stories about community-driven climate solutions.

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Sounds like a blue print for how it should be done....if its not too 'socialistic' for the alt righters out there.

Climate change is going to cost all of us...plenty. It's costing some of us our lives already, if you include third worlders, or Americans in tornado ally...and its only going to get worse if we keep playing politics with the Great Mother. She has her own way of voting(keeping life going) and we're no higher on her list that a decent fungus.

Conversely, if we start using government for what its designed for...we can engineer win-win-wins that benefit all of us. Up front money from our local governments plus rebates for accredited work to net 0 existing housing benefits everyone. It's a make work project that incentivises green could lead to solar factories next door as opposed to on the other side of the planet.
The workers make good salaries and pay taxes, the taxes raised from a prosperous work force pays for more investment in our local futures, the retrofitted houses save their owners on the monthly energy bills, and those savings go into the local community, the grid becomes more robust and trustworthy as less energy is used and more produced locally.......our need for fossil fuels decreases over time emissions decrease as well.

The only ones its not a total win for is the FOSSIL FOOLS still fighting a clean transition and pretending that climate catastrophe is a hoax......or something to benefit from through greenwashing fossil gas. Its they who support Parties of Denial and call them Conservative. By now we all should know it......and stop imagining that ending the Carbon Tax will bring us prosperity.........most of us save money on that tax, most of it pure profit if we've already solarized and retrofitted.

Three good ways to save the planet, and our pocket book: 1. Retrofit our homes 2. Electrify our transportation and 3. Continue to raise the price of polluting the atmosphere with Green House Gases.

And that's the truth.

Great advise Mary. I need a plan and some recommendations. Living on the border of Treaty 6 and Treaty 7 in north of Red Deer.