Alternative Resource Energy Authority (AREA) – Real Projects. Real Benefits. Real Change.

Alternative Resource Energy Authority is a 100% municipally owned company formed in 2014 by the towns of Antigonish, Berwick and Mahone Bay.  As part of our Renewable Energy and Efficiency Series we sit down with AREA’s General Manager, Aaron Long and Program Development & Operations Manager, Lenta Wright for a Q&A about the company’s projects and customer programs as part of AREA’s mission to create a realistic path towards net zero in the supply and end-user sides of electrical power.

 

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Spotlight on Business: Aaron and Lenta, why don’t we start off by you telling our readers a little about yourselves, your background, and roles with the Alternative Resource Energy Authority?

Aaron Long: I grew up in rural nova scotia, with family heritage in the forest products industry dating back two centuries in Canada. That industry was in transition during my two technical degrees at Dalhousie University, and I became passionate about clean energy around the same time. So, it was logical to pursue a career in renewable energy to ensure meaningful employment for me in Nova Scotia. I started in an analytical role for a small independent power producer based in Toronto and grew into more significant project development roles. When that small company was sold in 2008, I went to work for another forest products industry firm seeking to grow its clean energy ambitions. I led the company’s ambitions with wind energy, resulting in the 102MW South Canoe Wind Farm, after securing the necessary partners and contracts. I also got some important experience developing a 10MW biomass combined heat and power project and being involved in the tidal energy project. During this period of my career, I had the great fortune of pursuing a business degree overseas with a focus in the global energy industry. That same firm provided the underpinning development work for AREA and in 2016, I moved to the direct employ of AREA, growing the company’s ambitions and now I lead it as the General Manager. Over my career, I’ve seen the incredible wealth generation potential of the clean energy transition and I want to ensure that a fair share flows into the public purse. My philosophical perspective in this regard aligns with the objectives of AREA’s municipal ownership and that’s a key motivation for me in this role.

Lenta Wright: I immigrated from South Africa in 2016 with my family and settled in Halifax.  My career in South Africa was spent in the motor vehicle industry from supply side to corporate services.  This was a good fit for my first tasks at AREA; when I joined the team four years ago, which was to develop an electric vehicle charging infrastructure for communities.  This project resulted in 42 charging points across five communities. I have since moved on to project development of the three Community Solar Gardens in our three owner towns. 

Spotlight on Business: Can we get a little history on the Alternative Resource Energy Authority, like when it was founded, by whom and why?  

Aaron Long:  Four municipal electric utilities desired to have greater control over the cost and carbon intensity of their wholesale electricity supply so, with the help of the firm I was at in 2013, AREA was formed in that year by the towns of Antigonish, Berwick and Mahone Bay. Each town has two members on the Board of Directors, the Mayor and one other councillor, and each town has equal voting power, regardless of the allocation of risk and reward. That is extremely unique for a number of reasons – firstly, that any municipal unit enters into a power-sharing structure, recognizing that its share of a larger pie is better for their citizens than control of their own pie. Secondly, for any town having the most to win or lose in such an arrangement, it’s rare for that entity to see the value in shared decision making. But that takes work and constant compromise. The collaborative nature of these councils and town staff from these three towns is the foundation of success for AREA, and based on that, the Ellershouse Wind Farm was the first low hanging fruit.

Spotlight on Business: The Ellershouse Wind Farm the first Alternative Resource Energy Authority “low hanging fruit” project.  Take us through this first project.  When did the project start? How long did the project take to complete? Has the project met the original financial assumptions?  Has the project enabled the four municipal electric utilities to achieve compliance with the 2020 Nova Scotia Renewable Energy Standard?

Aaron Long:  Wind is the lowest cost renewable energy technology and the firm I was with in 2013 was developing a wind project in Ellershouse near its existing 5MW hydro facility. So, it was logical for AREA to pursue a wind project with a local firm with a long-standing and great local reputation. The towns took the risk of funding the development work associated with grid integration, wind resource and environmental studies, hoping to secure permits. After securing the necessary permits and funding, the Ellershouse Wind Farm was built in phases – 4 turbines came online in late 2015, with 3 more turbines in each of 2016 and 2017: now there’s 10 in total. The project has exceeded the original financial assumptions, but we were very conservative given the nature of municipal ownership. The Towns, via AREA, are extremely proud of this accomplishment. To put it in perspective, there’s about 12,000 people maximum in the three owner towns and Riverport, collectively sharing the risk and reward of a $51 million wind farm. AREA has accordingly been laser focused on being risk averse and that informs our technology choice and our operations & management strategies.

Spotlight on Business: The Ellershouse Wind Farm project does more than provide renewable energy to four municipal electric utilities.  How does this project give back to the communities and its members especially with the Ellershouse Wind Farm Society? 

Lenta Wright: AREA’s commitment from the start of the Ellershouse Windfarm project was to ensure benefit to the three owner towns, and the community where the Windfarm development is situated.  

From concept to commercial operation and beyond, we have and continue to consult with the Ellershouse Community through their Wind Farm Society.  The Society was formed to be the eyes and ears of the community, advocating for their needs and rights, and building a relationship between AREA and the Ellershouse Community.  

AREA makes an annual $10,000 donation to the Ellershouse Wind Farm Society, which is used to directly benefit community members.  The Society collectively decides how to best use the donation in their community. Traditionally the funds are spread amongst initiatives that benefits children in the community, the community at large and keeping the Community Hall operational.  The benefits to the children range from sponsorship for summer camps, skating sessions, school breakfast and lunch programs, a drug safety program and a 1st year bursary for students in secondary education.  

The donation pays for Community Hall Insurance, internet at the Hall and food for the “In-the-Village Concert Day” as well as the Senior’s Bus Society and Tea Party.  

In addition to the annual donation, AREA supports the community when the need arises.  AREA hosts its quarterly board meetings at town hall, which further contributes to the Society’s funds by Hall rental and lunch fees. 

Spotlight on Business: It seems like the secret behind the success of these Alternative Resource Energy Authority project is more the collaboration of your stakeholders, than just owning clean energy assets or innovation, can you explain this further?

Aaron Long:  I’ve worked at private firms where staff conflict stalls projects, even sometimes brings them to failure. The staff at AREA, working closely with our Town councils and Town staff, have achieved a means to sort through the rough patches. We don’t always agree, but there’s enough common ground with clean energy projects that we have continually found a way to reach a compromise. That’s a mindset, a skillset and an attitude that is contagious. Industry sees this, so do other levels of government. As do the community residents in Ellershouse. All of these stakeholders are made up of regular Nova Scotians from all walks of life. And via AREA, they have access to the benefits of the clean energy transition. So, it demonstrates the potential in front of us as Nova Scotians to take control of our energy destiny instead of relying on investor-owned utilities to tell us what’s best for our way of life and our economy. 

Spotlight on Business: The success of the Ellershouse Wind Farm project and the strong collaboration between AREA and partnering towns has led to the development and construction of utility-scale community solar garden projects.  Can you tell us about the project and the benefits that it offers partnering towns?

Lenta Wright: The Environmental Goals and Climate Change Reduction Act require the electricity sector to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.  The electric utilities in Nova Scotia therefore need to clean up and diversify their electric supply in order to meet the targets.  

In 2017 AREA started developing solar photovoltaic projects for 20 municipalities in Nova Scotia through the Solar for Community Buildings program.  Collectively the 1.5MW of commercial solar delivers revenue to rural communities and allows these communities to participate in renewable energy and to have a positive impact on our climate. 

Our experience in developing these projects for rural communities, inspired us to develop a utility scale community solar project.  We are currently constructing 9MW of Community Solar in the towns of Antigonish, Berwick and Mahone Bay which will deliver clean and cost-effective electricity to the three towns.  By diversifying our renewable energy mix we ensure continued energy security and rate stabilization. 

These Community Solar Gardens will unlock opportunities for people to participate in solar, without needing a roof and at a financial level that they are comfortable with. 

Spotlight on Business: You are actively developing further opportunities to decarbonize AREA’s supply of electricity to Antigonish, Mahone Bay, Berwick and Riverport.  Are these services only offered to partnering communities or are they available to other municipal electric utilities in Nova Scotia that have yet to achieve 40% renewable energy? 

Aaron Long: We have a specialization with municipally owned utility-scale renewable energy project development and operations. That value proposition is maximized for municipal electric utilities in Nova Scotia because we have significant experience and insight into the wholesale marketplace and the regulatory regime that guides the market. We also provide strategic and tactical guidance to the towns on various aspects of their electric utility operations. But that doesn’t mean we’re exclusively focused on that set of opportunities for our owner towns. There are other municipal electric utilities in Nova Scotia that can benefit via collaboration with AREA. 

Spotlight on Business: Can AREA offer your utility-scale, renewable energy project development and financing services to any municipality in Nova Scotia, or just your partnering communities or municipalities and those owning an electric utility? 

Aaron Long: We are eager to strengthen our relationships with other municipalities in Nova Scotia. It is our understanding that the province is sincerely interested in ensuring municipalities have access to various opportunities to generate wealth by participating in clean energy projects. We have capacity and capability to lend to that pursuit, in particular, the upcoming Share Solar program where municipalities can sell the solar energy generated in a long-term contract. This would be a replication of our success with the nearly 9MW of Community Solar Gardens currently developed and under construction.

Spotlight on Business: We understand the services available for municipalities.  Can AREA assist energy end users in these towns? If so, is there a size limitation and what kind of services do you offer to energy end users?

Lenta Wright: Decarbonizing our towns requires wholesale renewable energy supplies in addition to transitioning end users to electricity from fossil fuels. Recognising this, AREA developed the HOME (Heat Pump Options Made Easy) program and we’re currently reviewing the program’s performance, making the necessary adjustments and enhancement required to pursue end-user conversions. We’re leveraging the brand of the Towns, and that takes special care and consideration, as the customer feedback indicates a significant level of trust that the town can navigate end-users’ decarbonization journey. AREA also led the electric vehicle charger installation program in our owner towns, collaborating with Summerside (PEI), Saint John, Edmundston and Perth Andover (NB), securing nearly $500,000 from Natural Resources Canada to install over 50 charging points in our towns to alleviate range anxiety. 

Spotlight on Business: The Province of Nova Scotia is rolling out programs to encourage municipal ownership of clean energy assets like the Shared Solar Program. How do municipalities and energy end users in Nova Scotia connect with you to chat about opportunities of mutual benefit?

Aaron Long: Go to our website, send me an email. We’re interested in conversations about mutual collaboration with like-minded municipalities!

Spotlight on Business: In closing, are there any items that we might have missed that you would like for us to share with our readers about the Alternative Resource Energy Authority (AREA)?

Aaron Long: I should mention that the towns have realized over $15 million in profit and savings over the past 5 years or so. That’s quite an accumulation of wealth for towns with 12000 people in total. These funds are reinvested into quality-of-life initiatives by the councils, and this is entirely replicable by others. These financial and carbon benefits will grow as energy continues to increase in price and attention turns to addressing climate change.

If we have learned nothing else from this article it is that it takes everyone in a community to make the transition to a greener future, and at the heart of it lies teamwork. It is the successful collaboration between municipal partners, government, industry, and customers that has resulted in financial benefits and a clear path to net zero for the communities that are involved.

 

by Lee Ann Atwater