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Fertile ground for a growing movement

In this Grounded feature we focus on the work of Our Energy Guelph and their goal of transitioning the city to a net-zero carbon community by 2050

The modern environmental movement is rooted in the counterculture of the 1960s and '70s when it was led by activist groups that were typically antithetical to corporate interests.

The animosity was mutual with many business leaders, as well as a large segment of mainstream society dismissing environmentalists as idealistic alarmists at best and radical troublemakers at worst.

Opportunities to establish common ground and cultivate effective communication and collaboration were slim when the consensus was, “If it is good for the environment, it is likely bad for business.”

Concepts, such as that proposed by Our Energy Guelph, of transitioning an entire city to a net-zero carbon community, would have been seen by many, including some of those early radical activists, as a Sierra Club fever dream, but the times and the climate, “they are a changing”.

“Twenty years ago, it was more radical people who were pushing this concept and now it is much more mainstream,” said Our Energy Guelph board member Vicki Gagnon. “You are seeing regular companies, universities and other types of business becoming net-zero now.”

Gagnon said the mainstreaming of the environmental movement is necessary if we are to mobilize the resources required to reverse the impact of climate change.

“We don’t have any choice,” she said. “We have to make it happen. There is no one solution. We need to do everything we can across the board to make that happen and I am seeing the change happen very quickly now. I am very optimistic.”

Gagnon has spent the past 16 years with the Independent Electricity System Operator, IESO, advising agriculture, municipalities, universities, and other public sector organizations as well as energy managers across Ontario on ways to manage and improve the efficiencies of energy producers and services. She advises on ways to participate in government programs and is a director on the board of the Clean Air Partnership – Fostering Sustainable Cities in Ontario.

“I would say most businesses have sustainability and net-zero goals,” she said. “Some are trying to reach it by 2030, some 2040, some 2050.  Some of their targets are further out than others but it is definitely not a fringe movement.”

Gagnon considers Guelph fertile ground for the growing movement.   

“The city itself is forward-thinking and also the municipality is made up of a lot of citizens who are also green and want to implement this energy transition as well,” said Gagnon.

“Our Energy Guelph comes in, both in terms of helping people make those decisions, as well as providing a vehicle for some funding and financing to make it happen.”

The seeds of OEG were planted in 2007 when Guelph city council established the Community Energy Initiative and set out a 25-year plan to reduce energy use and produce less greenhouse gases. After 10 years they established the CEI Task Force to evaluate their progress.

“We were set up by the City of Guelph as an independent, not-for-profit in 2019,” said OEG executive director Alex Chapman. “Our goal is to make Guelph net-zero carbon by the year 2050. What it means is that as a community we are ensuring that we are pulling out of the atmosphere whatever carbon we are putting in it. So, it balances out.”

One of the biggest barriers to making the necessary changes has been overcoming public assumptions about the costs of green technologies and fears about the broader long-term effect it will have on jobs and the economy. 

“I think it is natural that people will make assumptions before they have done the hard work to figure things out,” said Chapman. “If you were to embark on this initiative 20 years ago it probably would have required massive amounts of taxpayers’ dollars to make things work. Technology has moved to such a degree now that it is far more cost effective to transition to this new economy than cling to the old one.”

The OEG’s plan, The Pathway to Net Zero Carbon for Guelph, is projected to create 1,300 jobs and will require $3.2 billion of investment over 30 years.

“That works out to about $100 million a year, but it produces $5.15 billion in direct economic benefit,” said Chapman. “The difference between how much you invest and how much you get back is $1.85 billion. The internal rate of return is around nine per cent which is about what a utility typically makes.” 

They are confident these kinds of numbers will attract private investors and reduce the need for government funding.

“You don’t really need to have government dollars in the picture for that,” said Chapman. “The government still has a significant role to play without necessarily putting money on the table. Not in all cases anyway.”

They have applied for government support to launch the Property Assessed Clean Energy or PACE program.

“The biggest thing we have going on is trying to build and put forward this PACE program,” said OEG chair, Alex Ciccone. “The idea is it will be a program where homeowners could apply to receive money to do clean energy retrofits.”

They believe offering low or no-interest loans will increase homeowners’ incentive to go green.

“People don’t want more debt with interest,” said Ciccone. “They want debt that isn’t going to cost them anything and is going to save them money. We are trying to say if you decide today to retrofit your furnace, change your windows, put on solar panels, it will save you money over x number of years. We can do the math for you to show how many years before you start saving so much money.  Then it becomes a no-brainer. It’s not a mental decision. It’s a fiscal decision so, why wouldn’t you do that?”

Their research has shown the climate for change in Guelph is rising.

“We recently co-hosted an event and as part of that there was a poll that showed that something like 76 per cent of Guelphites want climate to be our number one priority, over things like health and other really important things,” said Ciccone. “We’re hearing from the community that it is their top priority as well.”  

Ciccone has committed many years to the environmental movement both as an activist and an environmental lawyer. He is inspired by the diversity of the OEG board and the commitment of all the members to use their experience and expertise to transition Guelph to a net-zero carbon community.

“I grew up in Timmins, Ontario and let me tell you, being an environmentalist in Timmins is a lot different than being an environmentalist in Guelph,” he said. “I would absolutely would have considered myself a radical. Like many movements, it started off as a more radical movement and now it has mainstreamed a little bit, which is good because you see wider adoption.”

Protesting has been an effective way to raise public attention, but without cooperation from those with power and influence little will change. Using capitalism to address problems created, for the most part, by capitalism is proving to be a productive approach.  

Ciccone adds, however, that we still have a lot of work ahead and should be cautious about confusing popular support with popular action and growing complacent.

“Ultimately, corporations are only going to do the right thing if it is in their best interest,” he said. “They have too because they have a legal obligation to their shareholders.  That’s why we need this multi-faceted approach. We need people who are protesting outside of buildings to convince people to do different things. We also need organizations like OEG to work with corporate entities to try and find ways to incentivize them to do the right thing.”

Climate change is impacting all of us and we have wasted valuable time fomenting division then blaming the other for the lack of cooperation and progress. It is a lesson the leaders of the new generation of radical environmentalists appear to have learned.

“There is a great quote by Greta Thunberg,” Ciccone said. “A reporter asked if she could be friends with a climate denier and she said, ‘I don’t know we are all climate deniers in a way because none of us are doing enough.’”

To learn more about Our Energy Guelph visit:,