Building the Relationship: The Ongoing Importance of Community Engagement

Effective community engagement is key to the success of a waterpower project. A Community Engagement Toolkit is available to help project developers take advantage of best practices and lessons learned.

By Karen Wianecki

Waterpower development factors prominently in the Canadian province of Ontario to expand the production of renewable energy, meet climate change targets and move toward a more eco-friendly economy. Waterpower developers have long recognized the importance of working closely with community members, but the inherent value of effective community engagement is being increasingly realized.

In Ontario, effective community engagement by members of the waterpower industry has emerged in response to several compelling factors:

A renewed focus on small scale generation

The early development of large facilities in Niagara and on the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, coupled with the construction of municipal “hydros,” were key to the province’s electrification. Hydro expansion in northern Ontario followed, to provide reliable, affordable energy to localized resource industries (such as pulp and paper and mining) and to serve the needs of a growing population in the south. During construction in the 1980s, the province introduced a small hydro program (capacity of 10 MW or less) as part of its energy plan, resulting in the development or redevelopment of more than 50 facilities. Small hydro systems can be connected to the grid and provide power or they can be used for independent and stand-alone applications. The Long Term Energy Plan (launched in 2010 and updated in 2013) establishes a target of 9,300 MW of waterpower to be in production by 2025 and places a specific emphasis on small hydro, including optimizing existing infrastructure.

An increasingly engaged public

Issues affecting resource management and use are becoming increasingly complex. Public interest and engagement on a range of resource and environmental matters has heightened. More uses, more users, and more polarized views all point to the value of having a suite of tools and resources that can assist in supporting effective community engagement. Securing a social license to operate a project is essential to its long-term success.

Policy emphasis on community participation

Over the past decade, public policy with respect to renewable energy generally and waterpower specifically has evolved to place an increased emphasis on the participation of communities at the project level. For example, initial resource access policy for waterpower that was passed in 2004 encouraged “business to business” relationships with Aboriginal communities. Currently, renewable energy procurement programs include a wide spectrum of “incentives” aimed at enabling community involvement. Such provisions range from the establishment of a competitive advantage for projects that demonstrate local support to “set asides” for projects with community equity participation to an increased value for the electricity produced by a community-owned facility.

This four-step approach is designed to help waterpower developers build relationships.
This four-step approach is designed to help waterpower developers build relationships.

Creating mutual gains

Working with communities is not new. Waterpower developers in Ontario have complied and continue to comply with consultation requirements prescribed by statute. What is new is the paradigm shift toward effective engagement and the recognition that engaging effectively at the community level can create truly remarkable results. Many in the waterpower sector already realize that process is as important as product and that community engagement is not “nice to do” but rather a “need to do” business imperative. Many examples can be cited where members of Ontario’s waterpower community have established solid partnerships and played a key role not only in advancing waterpower, but in building relationships and communities at the same time. Peterborough Utilities, Hydro Ottawa, Orillia Power and Bracebridge Generation all offer some examples, but there are many others.

With support from the Independent Electricity System Operators Education and Capacity Building Fund, the Ontario Waterpower Association convened three municipal engagement sessions in 2016 to provide elected officials, municipal staff and their representatives with basic information about waterpower development and to gain insight and information from municipal staff and community leaders on community engagement expectations and experiences. These sessions confirmed the value of working collaboratively with waterpower developers and highlighted the need for a toolkit to offer insight and direction to the waterpower sector about the complexities associated with engaging effectively at the community level.

Development of new tools to accompany evolving perspectives and approaches is part of OWA’s ongoing commitment to sustainable and responsible waterpower development. It is also aligned with a recognition by OWA that practical guidance can support the professional judgment of those involved in implementing waterpower facility construction projects. OWA has already developed several Best Management Practice (BMP) Guides that address a range of topics, including environmental mitigation, facility construction and data collection.

In response to feedback received during these municipal engagement sessions, OWA published a Community Engagement Toolkit in 2016 to highlight a number of tools, tips and techniques for effective engagement at the community level. I participated as a member of the OWA team delivering the three workshops and also as a member of the collaborative team responsible for developing the toolkit. Others involved in developing the toolkit were: Julie Cayley (currently with Severn Sound Environmental Association, formerly with Julie Cayley Consulting), Karla Kolli (Dillon Consulting), Gillian Macleod (Ontario Power Generation), Douglas Yahn (WSP Group), Tami Sugarman (BluMetric Environmental), Ron Threader (Kleinschmidt Group), Karen McGhee (McGhee-Krizsan Engineering), Phil Shantz (Arcadis Canada), Scott Stoll (Aird and Berlis LLP), George Tatolis (Regional Power), and Tomasz Wlodarczyk and Gord Wichert (SLR Consulting).

As the toolkit describes, engagement is a mindset. The process of engagement spans the entire life cycle of a project and focuses fundamentally on working collaboratively with community members to share information, identify issues and formulate solutions … together. The approach is premised on building relationships but also valuing the perspectives, opinions and views of others.

The toolkit offers a framework for waterpower developers and a four-step approach that is logical, sequential and straightforward (see Figure 1).

Importantly, the toolkit puts forward the notion that quality of engagement depends on three key factors: open, clear communications; transparency and accountability; and responsiveness to the local context.

The intent is that the Community Engagement Toolkit will be used in combination with other BMP Guides to promote continuous improvement and the application of good practices. At the same time, the toolkit profiles several techniques and methodologies that can be applied at a project level, considerate of project specifics and the community involved. The toolkit will be of particular interest to those who want to enhance their engagement skills, work effectively with others across functional links and create social capital at the community level.

For those developing hydro projects elsewhere, the key messages are the same: creating connections at the local level with community members, stakeholders and elected officials is an essential first step to securing buy-in, building trust and realizing long-term project success. Given the multi-generational nature of waterpower development, relationship building is key. The tips, tools and techniques profiled in this toolkit will have universal application and be of interest to waterpower project managers around the globe.

Editor’s Note: This article was published in the Ontario Waterpower Association’s Year in Review and was adapted here with permission.


Karen Wianecki, director of practice with Planning Solutions Inc., is a professional facilitator, moderator and planner and an Ontario Waterpower Association member.

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