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Rethinking the power equation in the North (05/06)

It was a quarter century ago when I first started thinking about community energy. Actually it was my friend Narasim Katary who had the idea.

It was a quarter century ago when I first started thinking about community energy. Actually it was my friend Narasim Katary who had the idea. The plan back then (then being 1979 or so) was to grow artichokes out in the Valley as a source of alcohol to mix with gas to create ethanol. We had a plan, which included going to oil companies to get them to locate an ethanol plant in Sudbury and eventually sell ethanol in Sudbury, and then Northern Ontario.

It was all part of our sustainability strategy at Sudbury 2001, an economic self-help group. We looked at different clusters of economic activity to find opportunities for import substitution where we could replace imported services with locally created services to create local wealth and expertise.

It made sense to us to add another cash crop for Sudbury’s farmers and even more sense to repatriate energy dollars to the local community. It was, to be honest, more of an economic development idea than an environmental one.

In fact, local economic development initiatives and environmental concerns are not strange bedfellows. The enemy of rural economies, among other things, is the notion of economy of scale. The same thing that makes Wal-Mart economical (huge scale and the ability to buy everything in China and distribute it cost-effectively around the world) makes local companies less competitive except where service, quality, style and uniqueness trump price.

Economy of Scale is always about the unit cost of something.

The projection of scale allows daily newspapers to lay off local classifieds personnel in hometown communities and transfer jobs to central calling centres or network TV stations to centralize production scheduling and programming elsewhere, or hotel chains to have room booking call centres in Bangalor, India. Today’s buzzword is outsourcing. It leverages technology. The problem is that it can pick small communities dry with ever increasing efficiencies if they don’t happen to be outsourcing centres.

Happily, we are reaching a point where the economy of scale in some sectors is becoming inefficient again. We need look no further than today’s forestry industry in Northern Ontario or Ontario Hydro. Both have blown it.

Both need to be completely rethought.

I spoke recently at a Rural Development conference in Collingwood. It included around 350 people working in government agencies or government funded agencies with an interest in rural development.

Two things floored me.

First, I had no idea the provincial and federal governments had such a massive infrastructure dedicated to rural development. Most of this investment is related to farming communities.

The second shock was to discover that elements of this massive program of middle class welfare are beginning to get it. They understand that economic development starts from the bottom up, not the top down. They seem to appreciate that if there is no homegrown leadership, you are just wasting your money. There are too many secretariats and working groups running around bumping into one another and little consolidation of data or experience, but what else is new? It is a typical Canadian response to a Canadian problem.

That said, one of the groups I discovered reminded me of the great Sudbury Artichoke caper. It is called the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association.

These people are making things happen. They exist to empower local communities, through local co-operative initiatives to establish alternative energy strategies. They tell you how to get in the energy business. Recently they have helped convince the provincial government to make the groundbreaking decision to pay local alternative energy suppliers 11 cents a kilowatt-hour to supply power to the provincial grid.

This is revolutionary. It provides green energy. It brings back exported energy dollars to the community. It reverses to a small degree the so-called economy of scale of hydro plants and leverages technology to put local communities into the energy economy. It is technology that can empower communities, instead of deflate them.

Go to their website. If you have wind, you must act.

Michael Atkins is president of Northern Ontario Business. He can be reached For more information on the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association,