FES students and alumni at the heart of renewable energy push

As the Ontario government is praised for the renewable energy policy it announced on March 21, York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) is celebrating the key role its students and alumni played in pushing the province towards the policy, which supports community-based models of renewable energy production.

If the large wind turbine at Toronto’s Exhibition Place is a symbol for renewable energy in Ontario that symbol is deeply intertwined with FES. The impetus for the turbine came from the Toronto Renewable Energy Cooperative (TREC), an organization which emerged from a business plan created by Bryan Young (MES ’99) for his MES Major Project.

Right: The wind turbine at Toronto’s Exhibition Place

TREC was founded on the belief that harnessing renewable energy provides not only a sustainable source of power, but the possibility of a different model of energy supply – one that is community-based rather than dominated by large utilities. With this in mind, TREC partnered with Toronto Hydro to build the turbine. TREC’s portion of the cost was raised by WindShare, a cooperative specifically created to manage TREC’s investment in the turbine. Through buying shares in WindShare, about 420 members are directly connected to the turbine, which provides enough electricity annually to run about 200 homes.

TREC also helped establish an umbrella organization of renewable energy groups – the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association (OSEA), which focuses on getting communities involved in renewable energy. OSEA is also highly populated by FES alumni: staff members include executive director Deb Doncaster (MES ’99), general manager Melinda Zytaruk (MES ’04) and director of community power education Sally Miller (MES ’04).

Since its inception, OSEA has received strong support from the Trillium Foundation to provide workshops on how communities can undertake renewable energy projects – a model known as “community power.” OSEA has also been busy lobbying the Ontario government to make its policies more supportive of community-based renewable energy production. The effectiveness of OSEA’s efforts is demonstrated by the March 21 announcement, which encourages small renewable energy projects by guaranteeing a fixed price for electricity they sell to the province, thus ensuring they will recover their start-up costs.

Left: FES alumnae and OSEA staff members (from left) Melinda Zytaruk (MES ’04) and Deb Doncaster (MES ’99) with Dr. David Suzuki and OSEA Chair Brent Kopperson at Premier Dalton McGuinty’s announcement of the new renewable energy policy for Ontario on March 21

This new policy represents a major victory for OSEA – and, by extension, for the FES community. OSEA members point to their time at York University as crucial in helping get them where they are today. “The creative and challenging learning environment of the Faculty provided me the tools and inspiration to propel my work in the field of renewable energy and community education,” said Zytaruk.

FES involvement with renewable energy projects continues to expand. Current FES students are working with TREC and OSEA on cooperative models for funding community power projects, and FES Professor Rob MacDonald, one of the founding board members of TREC, continues to play an active role on the boards of both TREC and Lakewind, a large cooperative wind farm that TREC is currently developing near Lake Huron. As someone whose field of research is sustainable energy, MacDonald is proud of the role FES students have played in Ontario’s move towards renewable energy. “The many large wind turbines springing up around the countryside and the benefits that will emerge from the new renewable energy policy owe much to the vision and hard work of FES students,” he says.