Think Energy

The QUEST for Lower Municipal Emissions

Mar 14, 2022

Canada becoming net zero by 2050 is a commitment made by the federal government, but there’s a lot of action needed at a community level before this can happen. Municipalities make up 50% of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, so does that mean achieving net zero is actually a grassroots movement? Tonja Leach, Executive Director of QUEST Canada, joins Dan and Rebecca to talk about the importance of championing communities and how one of the biggest keys to a greener future is getting people to buy into the world we want to create.

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Dan Seguin  00:06

This is ThinkEnergy, the podcast that helps you better understand the fast changing world of energy through conversations with game changers, industry leaders, and influencers. So join me, Dan Seguin, and my co host, Rebecca Schwartz, as we explore both traditional and unconventional facets of the energy industry. Hey, everyone, welcome back. You know, we've talked a lot on the show about Canada's goal to be net zero by 2050. But I've been asking myself lately, if achieving net zero is really a grassroot movement. I mean, there's a lot of action that needs to happen at the local level before Canada can achieve its goals. And since 50% of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada are from municipalities, before we can talk about the big national picture, we need to look at every community across our country, and how they can affect change at their level, and what kind of coordination and effort will it take.

Rebecca Schwartz  01:15

That's right. Without a coordinated approach, communities with all of their different socio economic realities, different landscapes and different local perspectives may implement different measures that may not be compatible with their neighboring communities. Or they may fall short of achieving the necessary results.

Dan Seguin  01:34

Did you know that hydro Ottawa is going net zero by 2030. And the City of Ottawa has committed to achieving net zero of its operations by 2040. Both of these are great examples of grassroots initiatives. So here's today's big question. How important is it to empower community champions and influence decision makers to continue to create the conditions necessary for communities to contribute to Canada's Net Zero targets?

Rebecca Schwartz  02:07

On today's show, our special guest is Tonja Leach, Executive Director at Quest Canada. They're a nonprofit that supports communities in their quest to reach Net Zero. Tonja is a sought-after advisor working with Canada's energy sector, three levels of government, and community builders. And she helps them essentially to transition to a more sustainable energy future. Tonja is also active on a number of committees, like the Energy Futures Lab Partners council and steering committee, the Clean Resource Initiative Network, and the Positive Energy Advisory council, among others. And we're really happy she's here to talk to us today. Hey, Tonja, welcome to the show.

Tonja Leach  02:55

It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much for inviting me.

Dan Seguin  02:57

Tonja, as the executive director, maybe you could start by sharing with our listeners, what the QUEST organization is all about, such as maybe talk about your vision, your mission for Canada?

Tonja Leach  03:10

We're in the middle of updating our vision. So I'll give you the old version and recognize it will change slightly soon. So, our vision is that Canada's a nation of Smart Energy communities. And I say that's going to be updated, just because we've done some updating, you know, kind of tying things more closely to the net zero agenda. So there'll be some language changes to that. But the concepts and the principles still are accurate and remains the same. So, QUEST is a national nonprofit organization, and we support communities in Canada, on their pathway to Net Zero. Since we've been doing this since about 2007. And we facilitate connections, empower community champions and influence decision makers to implement efficient and integrated energy systems that best meet the community needs and maximize local opportunities. We develop tools and resources can be in stakeholders, rights holders, and advise decision makers, all with the goal of encouraging and enabling communities to contribute to Canada's netzero goals.

Dan Seguin  04:09

Okay, cool. What Critical Role do communities have in achieving Net Zero? How important is strong support and buy in from these communities?

Tonja Leach  04:21

Well, as I indicated, we work very closely with them. So maybe I have a biased opinion on this. But I mean, if you just look at the numbers, you know, communities are responsible for 50% of our energy use and about 50% of our emission. So that in and of itself tells you how important they are in achieving the Net Zero objectives that we're striving to achieve. So, Canada is going to have to rely quite heavily on communities to get there, but they require support and resources and they're not being supported or resourced in a way yet that they need to be really be able to play the impactful role that they can and should be playing. Many municipalities have been putting together community energy plans, community energy and emissions plans, you know, declaring climate emergency, I think there's over 500 communities in Canada that have now done that, and all the plans that go along with that, while quite aspirational, and I think that's a good thing, has really put municipalities in the driver's seat on energy. And that really has kind of flipped energy planning around a little bit, right. We know energy planning traditionally has been top down from the provincial level. But because they are playing such an active role in kind of dictating what that energy, their energy future looks like, it's actually put them in the driver's seat. So this is an interesting conundrum that we're facing right now. And it has led to a number of misalignments, you know, disconnects between what the province thinks about how energy is going to look in 2050, compared to what local governments think it's going to look like  in 2050. And, you know, I think there's a number of stakeholders that are kind of being caught in the crosshairs of that at this point in time, and we need to be building better alignment across them. So they have a very critical role to play coming back to your question. But there's still a lot of uncertainties about how we actually leverage the, you know, that the role that communities have to play and how we enable them to do that.

Dan Seguin  06:17

Tonja, I'm curious, what are the low hanging fruits municipalities can take advantage of?

Tonja Leach  06:24

Yeah, I think this is an interesting one, I think one of the things that part of the uncertainty comes from the fact of not knowing who has what role or responsibility to play and when to play that card. But municipalities, just by their very nature, have a number of, you know, cards in their hand to play. They're responsible for land use planning, and we know that one of the biggest impacts on our energy use is land use, right? How are we moving around in our communities? How effectively and efficiently can we do that, you know, places, creating communities where you can live work, and play makes a big difference on the amount of energy that we that we need. And also, you know, making sure that we're kind of balancing, supply and demand. And if you think about that, from a thermal context, where is heat, waste heat being generated from, say, an industrial process, that can actually be leveraged in the system itself. And if you build communities in a way and plan communities in a way that you can take advantage of those, you're obviously that much further ahead. They also have responsibility on transportation, you know, whether that is public transportation systems, and we see lots of kind of hybrid systems coming in now as well. You know, I mentioned low carbon thermal enabling Net Zero buildings and Net Zero infrastructure development, and supporting renewable energy deployment, distributed energy resources. There's lots of opportunity there, although lots of challenges in that regard as well. So, there's lots of low hanging fruit that they can take advantage of at this point in time and kind of start to contribute to the outcomes that we're all collectively striving for.

Rebecca Schwartz  07:57

Okay, now, what makes QUEST's approach to supporting community netzero objectives unique?

Tonja Leach  08:03

Yeah, thanks. I think what makes us unique is, well, a number of factors actually, at the highest level, I'd say that we take a systems approach to kind of the energy transition more broadly speaking, not to kind of belittle the need for a sectoral approach, but we need both. And if we don't, my analogy here is is you can't rehabilitate a forest, if you only focus on the trees, you need to be looking at the entire ecosystem. So that's the approach that we take is kind of looking at it from an ecosystem, and how do you kind of maximize the efficiency of the entire system or rehabilitate the entire system. So that's kind of the at the highest level our focus. We're also unique in that were across Canada, so we can actually see what's going on in different jurisdictions and kind of share best practices and lessons learned between jurisdictions, which is also really helpful. And we're also focused on what I call the less sexy stuff. So as far as we're not necessarily talking about specific technologies. We are, you know, there's a recognition, I think it was the International Energy Agency says, we have 80% of the technological solutions, we need to get to 2050. But the challenge is really getting them deployed. And that's where we focus. So this is on, you know, governance structures, business models, regulatory structures, legislation, policy, all of those, you know, there's no ribbon cutting ceremonies or any of those things, right. But those are the things that I think are increasingly being recognized as the inhibitors of or the pressure relief valve that we need to address the need for going to not just achieve net zero, but be sustainable and net zero.

Rebecca Schwartz  09:48

And a quick follow up for you, Tonja, you recently published a 2021 impact report. What are some of the highlights from this report that you're most proud of?

Tonja Leach  09:57

Well, I'm not sure if it's actually called out in the impact report, but I will say that I'm most proud of my team. I think that the team here at QUEST, we're often told that we punch well above our weight. And I do believe that that's true. And they're just an incredible group of people to work with. So just want to call that out first and foremost. In the 2021, impact report, that was also the first year that we saw that kind of major first successes from a project that we have going on in New Brunswick, called the Smart Energy Community Accelerator. And coming back to my first comment I made here about our vision that's in its next iteration to be reframed as the Net Zero Community Accelerator. And it really is focused on building that local capacity and the results of that project were greater than we had anticipated that they would be. So there's, there's a lot of positive momentum there. And, you know, kind of we are taking that as where do we go next with that? How do we expand that to be a national program that supports both building local capacity that's needed. So the tools, the resources, the knowledge, etc., but also kind of adding another stream to that, which is focused on getting projects to the point of implementation. So project initiation, we'll call it. So we're really proud of the work that we've been doing there with communities directly. The other piece that I think I really want to call out, as well as the Innovation Sandbox projects that we've had on the go, and was referenced in that report, as well. And this is really addressing that issue, again, around the regulatory structure, you know, the regulatory structure that we have is not really designed for innovation. So how do you kind of build innovation into that, and the Innovation Sandbox work that we've been doing, which is a concept, the Innovation Sandbox concept, was actually first started in the financial sector, and has been in other jurisdictions around the world brought into the energy space. And so we're doing that here in Canada. I'm really proud of that work as well.

Dan Seguin  11:56

Now, with over 5000 plus communities with different political infrastructures, local concerns, and socioeconomic composition. Tonja, how can local perspective be captured and aligned?

Tonja Leach  12:12

Yeah, it's a great question. And I think this is one of the biggest challenges we're actually facing today. I think there's many people know kind of what they and their own organization can possibly can contribute. But the alignment of all of these things is really the nugget that we need to crack. So I hate to say that we need deeper engagement, because we hear that so often right, and we're beyond just wanting to talk about things, we want to be doing things. But we do need to be engaging much more deeply and across multiple sectors more effectively. Because we need clarity on costs on trade offs on who's taking on what role, who has, what responsibility, what the timelines are, all of these things are unknown. And I think people are making assumptions about them at this point in time, and that's leading to the misalignment. So in order to get to the alignment, we have to be much more engaged with each other and working much more collaboratively. A great comment that I heard the other day, which was, we must stop the energy solution Hunger Games, right? This is not about anybody, you know, taking over somebody else's space, as in this is an end scenario, right? We need all hands on deck if we're going to get there and we have to work collaboratively to get there. And we have to be understanding and respectful of who's got what role and responsibility in the transition.

Rebecca Schwartz  13:45

So we hear you're helping municipalities reach reduction targets by enabling investments of local renewable energy projects and infrastructure. I'm wondering if you could just unpack this for me a little bit, and maybe give us some examples?

Tonja Leach  13:59

Yeah, so I would say that we enable investment by helping to streamline processes. So I'll give you an example of that. This is a few years ago now. But there was an energy utility in Alberta that was looking to or wanting to kind of build out solar. And they spent, you know, two years of their time in regulatory hearings, you know, trying to figure out the regulatory construct for this. And then it came time to kind of made it through all of that process. And it was time to actually kind of engage with the community to deploy their vision for the solar system. And because they hadn't engaged the community at the front end of this, the community was not very happy about where they had sited on the riverbed, the solar system. So that really stalled the process. So a lot of what our role and kind of my comment about streamlining the process itself is kind of making sure you've got all of the right stakeholders engaged at the right part of the process. And so that you don't run into these hiccups at the back end, that is just going to slow you down or stall the process. So it seems a bit backwards that you want to take the time the front end, but by taking the time at the front end, you've actually kind of relieved the issue that you may run into at the backend. So a lot of our work is really about kind of playing that coordinator and streamlining the process.

Dan Seguin  15:27

Thanks, Tonja. Great example. Now, from what I'm hearing, there's an incredible amount of momentum, around Net Zero pledges in the public sector, from governments around the world and from private sector as well. What are your thoughts around these Net Zero commitments from organizations? How do they differentiate spin from substance?

Tonja Leach  15:50

Well, I guess on the one hand, I would say that it's great that we're seeing the environment, climate change, climate action, sticking through what I would say, as a number of serious challenges. COVID, Black Lives Matter, Indigenous reconciliation, what's going on in Ukraine right now, the fact that this is still kind of remaining on the radar, I think it's a really positive sign, because I think it's been derailed many times over the past 30 plus years. So I think that's a very positive sign from my perspective on the momentum that we've got, we must maintain that momentum. And many pledges are ambitious. With a lot of like, you know, this is what we're going to do, but we don't know how we're going to do it, yet. And I think actually, in a previous podcast of yours, Bryce Conrad mentioned his moon shot. And, and I think that this is good to right, I think this is really important that we're putting a stake in the ground and saying "this is what we are going to achieve". Understanding we don't yet know how but we are smart people will figure it out. I think those are essentially what Bryce said. And this is good. But we've, I think what takes it from a spin to substance is action. And we also need to start to kind of define. So we need to start to define the how, of what you know how we're going to achieve that moon shot. But we also need to accept that it's not going to be perfect. And that's okay. We're going to make mistakes, we need to learn from those mistakes, we need to move on from those mistakes. We need to share the lessons that we've learned so that other people don't follow in our footsteps. And we kind of help everybody leapfrog down the road as it were. But yeah, we have to start to take action to take it from spin to substance.

Rebecca Schwartz  17:38

All right, Tonja, in your report, All Net Zero Pathways Begin with a Local Step, you speak of how we need to account for behavioral changes, and social acceptability to scale up net zero solutions. What do you mean by that, exactly?

Tonja Leach  17:53

Yeah. And what I mean is that we don't get to Net Zero without people. So we talk about Net Zero in terms of, you know, a federal objective, and we talk about it in terms of, you know, introducing electric vehicles into our grid and Net Zero buildings. But actually, you know, to maintain the momentum that we were talking about earlier, we need buy in from people. So people play a huge role. We also need people to want to live in a world that we're trying to create. So you know, bringing people along in that process is so critically important. They need to be under, you know, have understanding of the trade off, that will, no matter what we do come out of this, right? There's likely trade offs on costs, there's possibly trade offs on reliability, but we can accept those for the environmental benefit that we're going to, you know, achieve. But if we're not clear about what those trade offs are and people aren't accepting of them, then it becomes much more difficult to accomplish the outcome of net zero that we're trying to achieve. I think that, you know, people are instrumental in insisting on equity and Indigenous reconciliation as part of this transition. So this is not just about transitioning our energy systems, we have to deal with these social issues as part of that. And that actually is an opportunity. And we should be leveraging that as an opportunity. And we need to see I mean, at the most basic level, people need to be willing to walk or ride a bike or take public transit in order to reduce the emissions that each of us contribute to our society and globally. So, have a big role to play. And if we are, you know, forging down this path without engaging them and building the buy in along the way, eventually we're going to fall off our stool. So we need them, we need many people involved.

Dan Seguin  19:46

Now, Tonja, what do you think are the most promising and impressive carbon reduction and removal technologies from the perspective of maximizing the ability to achieve Net Zero by 2050?

Tonja Leach  20:01

Yeah, so actually I did, you gave me this question in advance. And I thank you for doing that. So I did a little bit of research because I do sit on the Clean Resource Innovation Network steering committee, and they've been, you know, using some federal government funding to support some really interesting technological projects. And one of the things that is often called out as you know, one of the bigger challenges we face is methane. And, you know, methane is obviously a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. And so it's one of those things that, you know, if we don't find a solution to that, then we're, you know, it's a harder process that we're trying to get through to get to Net Zero. So, there's a company called Econ Power, that has pioneered a technology called pulse methane pyrolysis. Don't ask me about the details of how it works, but it converts methane into hydrogen, and solid carbon, and it virtually eliminates CO2 emissions from the process. So I think it's those I'm just using that as an example. I think it's like those types of technologies that kind of can enable us to use and maximize the infrastructure that we've already developed. But, you know, helps to decarbonize those systems, because there's industries that are really challenging to decarbonize, right. And so, you know, we often reference like steel and cement and agriculture. And so if, you know, we need to be able to provide solutions that decarbonize those sectors as well. So I'll just I'll point to kind of those that decarbonize methane as a useful technology that I think, is maybe just on the early days of, you know, really being scalable and successful.

Dan Seguin  21:55

Cool. Okay. What are you most excited about when it comes to the vision and opportunities of Net Zero?

Tonja Leach  22:05

You know, to be honest, I think it's about collaboration, and what will come from that. I mean, as a society, I think we've all been pretty good about collaborating so far. But and there's more of that happening. But I think that, that for me is the exciting part. I think this is where, you know, really great ideas are born out of, you know, good collaboration. I'm really excited about, you know, much deeper energy system integration than we've seen so far. And there's many ways that that can happen through low carbon thermal solutions, distributed energy, resources, etc. So, anyway, yeah, I'm really excited about the collaboration component of this and how we, you know, collectively, bring ourselves together to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome.

Rebecca Schwartz  22:56

Okay, so how are different levels of government develop synergies across sectors to create opportunities that will enable innovation?

Tonja Leach  23:05

I'm gonna come back to a comment I said earlier about the energy solution Hunger Games. That just needs to stop. Right. We've been pointing fingers for so long and saying, "my solution is better than your solution". So for me, it's it's really about shifting from, I would say, an overemphasis, I think, on kind of sectoral solutions versus looking at things from a systematic perspective. But I think that is a big piece. And then, because nothing actually works in isolation of other things. Right. And so it's how do we take that more systematic approach to it? So it is a recognition that this is an 'and" conversation, not an "or" conversation. I think that is one of the, yeah, so I'm not I don't know if I'm directly answering your question, Rebecca. But I feel like this is kind of the nugget that we have to solve.

Dan Seguin  23:58

This one, our listeners always enjoy. What are some of the biggest barriers and challenges you've identified in your roadmap to zero emissions?

Tonja Leach  24:12

Yeah, as I said before, I think that it's not technology. So you know, I think it is not technology and that new technology, it's being able to deploy the technology that we have at scale. And that comes back to you know, those soft things that I was talking about earlier, around policy alignment. How is the policy structure between the province and you know, the energy utilities, energy service providers, regions and municipalities? How is that aligning? How is that mutually reinforcing? Because right now, it's not, I would argue.You know, governance structures, more broadly speaking, clarity of roles and responsibilities. You know, we need all the various actors to bring their solutions to the table and coordinate them. If we're going to achieve the outcomes that we're looking for. So the biggest challenge is that coordination and really, you know, getting to the clarity that we need on cost, on trade offs, on roles, responsibilities, and making sure that we then have the governance structures in place that enable those outcomes.

Rebecca Schwartz  25:17

Thanks, Tonja. Now, what do you think is the biggest myth or misunderstanding about Net Zero?

Tonja Leach  25:22

That's a hard one. Lots of misunderstanding. I gotta throw out cost. I don't think there's, you know, I would say the industry as a whole doesn't really have a good understanding of what this is going to cost to get us there. And not that I think that it could, we could actually put a real number on it. But we don't know how much it's gonna cost. We don't know who's expected to pay. This energy transition is very different than some of the transitions that we've seen before this, because they were always adding a new resource base, I would call it, into the mix. Right? This isn't about that. This is about how do we decarbonize the one that we've got? And that is a very different, it's a different challenge. Yeah, so I think the biggest myth or, you know, misunderstanding is that perhaps that this is simple. And that it's not going to cost us. Because it is going to cost us and it's very complicated.

Dan Seguin  26:23

Okay, Tonja, we always end our interviews with some rapid fire questions. Are you ready?

Tonja Leach  26:30

I'm ready! Yes.

Dan Seguin  26:31

Okay. Let's go for it. What are you reading right now?

Tonja Leach  26:36

I'm just cracking open Mark Carney's "Values". As I said, I'm just cracking it open. But this is what interested me in it. The title is "Values: Building a Better World for All" and I'm reading this, sorry, "Mark Carney examines the shortcomings and challenges of the market in the past decade, which he argues has led to rampant public distrust, and the need for radical change. The book touts tangible solutions for leaders, companies and countries". So very timely, I would say with everything that's going on globally right now. And I'm hoping to get some useful insights from that book.

Dan Seguin  27:10

Cool. What would you name your boat? If you had one?

Tonja Leach  27:15

I don't have one. But my grandfather had one and his name was "Pipit", and I would have to choose that same name. The name is actually a seabird and the class of boat was a Seabird. So that's the correlation.

Dan Seguin  27:30

Okay. Moving on. Who is someone that you admire?

Tonja Leach  27:35

Oh, gosh, I think that's changed for me in the last week and a half. The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, how could we not say that I admire I mean, just the way he has conducted himself throughout the last week and a half; stood up for his citizens, you know, kind of rallied the world around them and their challenges. Yeah, I truly admire what he's doing right now.

Dan Seguin  28:01

Now, what is the closest thing to real magic that you've witnessed?

Tonja Leach  28:08

Okay, this is a funny story. We were driving in a snowstorm at night, maybe a month ago or so on a dark road, sounds terrible. And a car went flying by us and in the cloud, of, you know, snow that kicked up off the road. And then when it settled back down, the car was gone. And we were on a dead straight road, there was no tail lights. It was just gone. And I have, you know, both my husband and I looked at each other, like, where did it go? Is it in the ditch, it's just gone. And still, to this day, it has just gone no idea where it went. So that's a disappearing act.

Dan Seguin  28:46

Okay, Tonja, what has been the biggest challenge to you personally, since the pandemic?

Tonja Leach  28:53

Oh, gosh, okay, um, well, I will start to say that I come from a place of privilege, and that I own my own home, I have my family. We've all been safe through all of this. So I'll start with all of that. But I would say, and I will also say that QUEST was a virtual organization before this, so that certainly helped as well. But I would say the hardest thing is transitions. Transitioning from work to home is literally the length of time it takes me to walk down a hallway. So you know, being able to shift gears from your work mind to mom mind, in that very short period of time. And obviously, when my kids were learning virtually at home, there was zero transition there at all right, it's kind of like double, you know, kind of playing multiple roles all at once. So I would say that's been the hardest thing, but by no means is that hard compared to what a lot of people have been through.

Dan Seguin  29:51

Now. This next one is pretty cool. We've all been watching a lot of Netflix and TV lately. What's your favorite movie or show right now?

Tonja Leach  30:03

I think I'm playing catch up on this. So we at QUEST, we often like to share some of the great stuff that is on Netflix or other streaming channels. But I'm catching up right now on "The Witcher", and I'm quite enjoying "The Witcher".

Dan Seguin  30:16

And lastly, what is exciting you about your industry right now, Tonja?

Tonja Leach  30:21

Well, I would say that despite the challenges that we face on, you know, figuring out who's got what role and what responsibility; never has it ever been as exciting time in the energy space as it is now. I mean, it's challenging. But that brings excitement to that, you know, to the mix. So yeah, I would just have to say that, like everything, really everything about what's going on right now, but yeah, I'm, you know, yeah, this is this collective objective of achieving a sustainable Net Zero future is just, it's inspiring. And, yeah, it's really exciting to see how everybody's trying to figure out how we come together to achieve that outcome.

Rebecca Schwartz  31:12

All right, Tonja, this is it. We've reached the end of another episode of The ThinkEnergy podcast. Now if our listeners want to learn more about you and your organization, how can they connect?

Tonja Leach  31:23

Yeah, great. So you can connect with us through our website, That's probably the fastest and easiest way; you can reach out to QUEST at [email protected]. And I will even throw it out there, you can reach out to me directly [email protected].

Dan Seguin  31:41

Again, thank you so much for joining us, Tonja. I hope you had a lot of fun.

Tonja Leach  31:46

I certainly did. This was a lot of great questions. And thank you for the opportunity to be here and share my thoughts with you.

Dan Seguin  31:53

Thanks for tuning in to another episode of the ThinkEnergy podcast. And don't forget to subscribe and leave us a review wherever you're listening. And to find out more about today's guests or previous episodes, visit I hope you will join us again next time as we spark even more conversations about the energy of tomorrow.