Thinking Big in a Small town

We have a tendency to downplay small towns. The tropes are maybe just true enough to persist: small town folks, the story goes, are sheltered from the big wide world; nothing ever happens in a small town, and young people need to escape to experience the world; and even in reverse, there are a thousand Hallmark Christmas movies about the city slicker who falls in love with a small town girl/boy and gives up their important career to enjoy the simple life.

I’ve heard that some Hallmark movies are even made here in Northumberland! But small towns are more than the tropes.

In municipal politics, politicians like me tend to emphasize that municipal politics is the level that affects people most: we’re responsible for your streets and garbage, your potholes and bag tags. Sure, it’s immediate and important, but also as mundane as you can get. Municipal politics is where you know the person calling you about a pothole by their first name. Quaint, boring, small. All of the big ideas (trade, development, climate change, energy, equity, etc) happen at the provincial and federal levels, right?

Well…yes and no. All of the big ideas filter down to individuals, and while there are more individuals concentrated in cities, we’re people too! All of those big ideas can and do affect us, and all of those big projects have a place here. Here are some big ideas that were talked about at the Rural Ontario Municipal Association conference, specifically about climate change.

The Energy Transition in Small Towns

Addressing climate change is the biggest problem humanity has ever faced, and electrifying all of our energy needs is central to solving it. But when we think about electrification we tend to think about big climate conferences in Europe, tech billionaires in the US, or massive nuclear reactors and hydro dams somewhere else. We also might think about opposition to wind farms here in Ontario, and how one government closed down coal plants and put up turbines and then the next government tore down the turbines and is now going to put up gas plants. It all lacks the immediacy of our small-town politics.

But in order for Canada to meet our targets of being net-zero (not emitting more CO2 than we’re sucking out of the air) by 2050, every building and vehicle in every small town in the country will change. Buildings will need to be retrofitted to be more energy efficient, including:

  • Better insulation to make sure that our buildings aren’t energy sieves;
  • Electrification of heating and cooking, through things like heat pumps and induction stoves;
  • Higher efficiency standards and design for new builds, including energy generation and storage; and
  • EV charging stations (because every new car sold in Canada after 2035 will be a zero-emission vehicle).

Yes, right here in Brighton. YOUR home. YOUR car. These things will change, for the better, and our town will adapt to help facilitate that change.

Even the big energy projects are going to be in small towns like ours. At the ROMA conference I heard a lot about some big projects in small towns:

  • Pumped Energy Storage is a big deal for stabilizing the energy grid to facilitate us using more renewable energy. The concern has always been that the sun isn’t always shining on your solar panels, and the wind isn’t always blowing on your turbines, but you always need energy. Pumped energy storage involves pumping water uphill when you have excess energy, and storing it in a large reservoir to be released back downhill (just like any hydro dam) when you need extra energy. There are currently big projects underway in Meaford and Marmora. Why not here? We have a big lake and a big hill, the facility would be almost entirely underground, and it would create a few dozen local jobs. But more than that, it could be a critical step toward making us energy resilient – less dependent on big centralized power plants connected to us by hundreds of kilometers of wire.
  • To go with pumped storage, why not local renewable energy generation? I know that wind turbines are controversial (personally I think they’re beautiful!), but solar panels don’t need to take up agricultural land; we could be covering our parking lots with them instead. It makes double sense to do so when you consider that the cars parking there will also be charging there; Brighton is working toward installing some EV charging stations in a public lot that will be repaved this year, and the infrastructure they install under the pavement will be necessary for most parking lots moving forward. Sometimes big changes are invisible!
A covered Wal-Mart parking lot. Parking lots are ugly anyway, and the blacktop stores a LOT of heat! Keep it ugly, but make it useful. (Photo taken from the linked National Observer article)
  • But not all renewable energy is electric, and the IESO (Independent Electricity System Operator) predicts that we’ll still be using gas beyond 2050. That means we’ll need Renewable Natural Gas (RNG), like they’re producing in the little town of Ilderton Ontario. This rural solution produces enough gas to heat 1,300 homes from agricultural waste like manure and compostables. While it’s still important that many of us switch to electric heat pumps to reduce our use of natural gas today, in the future a few farms like this could be heating half the town. A big change in one place can facilitate things staying the same elsewhere.
An Ontario dairy farm that produces enough gas to heat 1,300 homes. Brilliant!
  • I had the chance to chat with some reps from CIMCO, a refrigeration company that works with ice rinks. They have a program to help small towns like ours plan a retrofit for our arena to get it to net zero. Like I said, everything will change – sometimes in ways that mean that they’ll stay the same! We can change our arena, or stop using it; what we can’t do is business as usual.
I know I’m basically promoting these companies here. I like what they’re doing. My point is that they exist, what they’re doing is necessary, and it’s not actually that difficult. Change doesn’t have to be a massive struggle!

I could go on and on about BIG ideas and how they affect us here in small towns. I’ve talked about some of these before, and I hope we’ll all talk about some of them again.

My point today is that small towns do big things. We can do big things, we do do big things, and we must do big things. To do them well, we need to think bigger than potholes and bag tags. What big thing would you do if you thought you could? Share your ideas with us in the comments!

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