Impact: Innisfail Energy Futures Roadshow Cultivates Community Conversations on Energy

Driving through central Alberta is quintessential prairie. The big skies, aspen groves, golden wheat fields and sunlit canola crops are reminiscent of a W.O. Mitchell novel. It’s a landscape that’s intentional — shaped, cultivated and nurtured by the people and communities that are inevitably intertwined with it regardless of whether they were raised in the region or drawn there by the promise of a good life. 

Beyond their picturesque nature and agricultural roots, Alberta’s rural communities are a hive of both industrial activity and community-minded innovation that make them well placed to adapt through changing times and economic conditions.

The province has experienced its share of energy transitions. From the relatively late adoption of electricity (which came when the urban centres grew large enough to afford it) to the coal mining boom, to the discovery of natural gas fields that became the affordable energy option of choice, Alberta is again in the throes of an energy transition.

Along with the rest of the world, we’re in a race to produce as much energy as possible to meet demand while simultaneously searching for ways to make that energy less carbon intensive. The energy transition is also following many different routes, and some of those routes lead us outside of the cities to more rural and remote parts of the province where new ideas around energy are being cultivated.

Cultivating Innovation in Alberta’s Rural Communities

At the Energy Futures Lab, we work to identify the big challenges that require innovation. One of the questions we want to answer is how can we build near and long-term resilience in rural communities as the world transitions towards a low-carbon future? With the echoes of boom/bust cycles still ringing throughout the province, how can we ensure a prosperous future that benefits communities and doesn’t leave them behind? 

Our Innovation Challenge, Rural Community Resilience in a Low-Carbon Future, takes us into the heart of rural and remote communities asking those same questions. Collaboratively delivered with host communities across Alberta that want to learn more about the energy transition, our Energy Futures Roadshow is a mechanism and a space where they can lean into opportunities and generate solutions to strengthen both community and economic resiliency.

To date, our Roadshows have  partnered with the communities of Brooks, Rainbow Lake, Grande Prairie, Hinton, Devon, Crowsnest Pass, Drayton Valley, Red Deer, Whitecourt, and Athabasca. The Roadshows “explore what energy transition means in their local context, what the unique opportunities are and they come up with initiatives that are tailored to their area,” explains Juli Rohl, Lead Animator and Director of the Energy Futures Lab’s Impact Studio.

Up until this point, we’ve worked with multiple communities per year in a Roadshow season that typically runs from October to March. Last year, we pivoted that approach and took a new strategic direction to work exclusively with one municipality for the year, allowing us to get to know the Roadshow participants and organizers on a deeper and more personal level, expand and deepen community connections, and provide dedicated support to emerging community-led initiatives. In 2022 we put our new model to the test as we started a year-long journey when the Roadshow took us to the Town of Innisfail.

Innisfail’s Arable Land

Innisfail had long hoped to bring the Energy Futures Roadshow to the town. With a longstanding, rich agricultural history and thriving agricultural and industrial sectors, the community had already been branching out and diversifying through supporting and adopting clean energy initiatives like Elemental Energy’s 25 MW Innisfail Solar Farm north west of town. 

This economic diversification had been strategically positioned through the municipality’s Community Economic Development Strategy, The Power of Place. In addition, the town is home to local industries that are proving their ability to pivot and adopt new technologies and innovations. All of this, combined with a visionary and forward-looking Town Council and Administration, set the groundwork for a partnership that allowed us to dig deeper and nurture the seeds of community resilience. 

Innisfail’s Town Council, Administration and local business members warmly welcomed the EFL team and workshop participants. “Energy can be polarizing. But for Innisfail, it is proving to be a chance to bring people closer together where they can discuss the challenges they are facing and their hopes for the future. In coming together, people are able to brainstorm solutions for the community’s future” says Todd Becker, Chief Administrative Officer for the Town of Innisfail. 

Cultivating Ideas for a Rich Harvest

The Roadshow included a total of four in-person workshops, a virtual workshop, and a series of three online Learning Journeys co-led by Energy Futures Lab Fellows and Ambassadors. Between September 2022 and March 2023, the engagements reached 104 people from across Alberta, including Calgary, Edmonton, Red Deer, and previous Roadshow communities such as Rainbow Lake, Grande Prairie and Athabasca, while primarily engaging Innisfail and area local businesses and community members, and government.

Throughout the workshops and Learning Journeys, the Energy Futures Lab facilitation team prompted participants to think about both the long term and short term vision for the town’s energy future. Through facilitated exercises, participants created, shared and iterated their ideas, and strengthened them from peer feedback and through group discussion. 

From the seeds planted, an abundance of initiatives sprang forth. The Innisfail Roadshow generated many ideas but focused on actioning and further exploring six initiatives including: hosting a series of  community conversations on energy, youth energy education, an Energy Fair at the local Trade Show, a local Hydrogen Strategy, Waste to Heat project, and the development of a government relations strategy for the community. 

The Innisfail Energy Hub is Launched

From the early planning stages, Innisfail’s community members, Town Councillors and Administration, and business owners demonstrated a keen enthusiasm to organize and co-host the Roadshow. Discussions led to the creation of a new community initiative, the Innisfail Energy Hub (IEH). According to Todd Becker, the Innisfail Energy Hub is a collective that was co-created by participants of the Energy Futures Roadshow. The identity of this collective focuses on enabling community conversations about energy to bring in diverse voices to focus on the town’s resiliency and economic strength.

The Innisfail Energy Hub has been gaining momentum and has already begun to host several in-person activities including initiatives that emerged from the Roadshow workshops. 

In December, The Town of Innisfail collaborated with St. Marguerite Bourgeoys Catholic School to deliver a “Youth Energy Day” complete with booths, presentations and learning resources about energy production, consumption and innovation. 

Two community conversations on energy have taken place, at Dark Woods Brewpub and Coffee Roasting and at the Innisfail Legion. These engagements aim to bring together members of the community, local business, service organizations and members of the Innisfail Energy Hub to learn, debate and discuss the community’s energy future over casual food and drinks. 

Finally, the Innisfail Energy Hub hosted an “Energy Fair” at the Innisfail Trade Show from March 31 to April 1, 2023. In collaboration with the event hosts, the Innisfail Chamber of Commerce, the Innisfail Energy Hub was able to secure space to showcase electric vehicles, utility providers, and exciting energy innovation opportunities for the community. A highlight of the event was a speaker presentation by local entrepreneur Robert Bilton of Bilton Welding and Manufacturing Ltd. who spoke about the hydrogen locomotive engine retrofits they have been completing at their Innisfail facility.  

In addition to the great work of the Hub, the Energy Futures Lab connected with Bilton Welding and Manufacturing and supported them in getting out the word about their game-changing innovation and the transformative potential it has for the decarbonization of the transportation sector by providing strategic advice on narrative building, a mainstay of our social innovation practice. 

Modeling Community-Driven Action

The IEH opened their arms to having others join the Roadshow workshops to build literacy and excitement around what’s happening within the energy transition, both within the region and across Alberta. The IEH attracted some heavy-hitters. 

Leaders in the field attended and presented at the Roadshow workshops. Robert Bilton, from Innisfail-based Bilton Manufacturing and Welding gave a talk at the November workshop and shared the news that the company is prototyping and manufacturing hydrogen locomotive engines for CP Rail. Dave Van Den Assem from Alberta Innovates spoke at the January workshop on the Edmonton Region Hydrogen Hub and was keen to energize what was happening with innovations local Innisfail businesses like Bilton Manufacturing and Welding. 

In-between Roadshow workshops, community members benefited from online learning journeys where speakers from British Columbia and Alberta shared their knowledge with the community. For example, Wendy Hutchins from FIRST Robotics Alberta and IndigeSTEAM presented along with staff and participants from the Howl Experience (including Adam Robb, Daryl Kootenay, Shauna Kelly, Sneha Rose Jigo) and shared insights on engaging youth in energy innovation. HOWL staff also met with Innisfail Town staff to explore the development of a youth engagement plan. 

The IEH was also keen to engage with demographics who may not always get a say in the energy transition. A highlight of this year’s Roadshow occurred at the November workshop when organizers engaged with the Indigenous-owned Sweetgrass Cafe in nearby Trochu who provided a special meal and offered prayers at the second workshop in November. Attendees were able to enjoy traditional stew, bannock, berries and juice. Elder John also engaged the group by sharing stories and providing space for questions. 

Engaging youth was another top priority for the Innisfail Energy Hub. This was demonstrated in the first workshop where the shop class from the Innisfail High School joined the Zoom meeting and participated in identifying desired future energy narratives for Innisfail. 

In engaging with diverse community participants, the IEH gained rich learnings and developed projects that consider energy futures from different lenses.

Fellowship Sets the Stage for a Successful Roadshow 

Our 2023 Fellowship is fortunate to include three participants from the Innisfail Roadshow who were inspired to apply, and who bring their knowledge of working within diverse industries and sectors in rural Alberta and Canadian municipalities. New Fellows include Innisfail’s Chief Administrative Officer Todd Becker, Rory Wheat from Varme Energy, and Leanne Kubiseski from Fortis Alberta. Furthermore, this Roadshow owes much to the support of EFL Fellows Brad Nickel, Maggie Hanna, Victor Del Valle, and Winona Lafreniere, as well as previous Fellows Pat Bourne, Sean Collins and Megan Lohmann

Fellows helped to shape the Roadshow by leading Learning Journeys, offering office space to meet, providing expertise for initiatives and workshops, and continuing to make connections with others in their networks to further support for the Innisfail Energy Hub initiatives.  

Building Community Through Conversation

One of the goals of hosting a Roadshow is to convene a cross-section of community members to have conversations that lead to tangible plans and actions. The IEH initiative to host “community conversations” achieves just that. This initiative offers a holistic approach to community engagement through informal energy discussions at community gathering places around Innisfail. While the Roadshow workshops have concluded, the community conversations around energy will live on and give Innisfail community members a space to generate ideas for the future of their community.  

In his own words, Todd Becker feels that “the Roadshow has been instrumental in bringing members of our community together to work hard and build our confidence to host community conversations about energy. The beauty of the Roadshow has been to leverage the community to come together and learn new language about energy and also understand what is possible”.

As Juli Rohl eloquently puts it, “working on climate change and energy transition can be overwhelming, and it can be lonely. When we sit with our friends and neighbours, sticky notes, and Co-op donuts, we co-create our future together, and this makes us want to roll up our sleeves and get involved”. 

Preparing the Harvest

The Town of Innisfail has plowed the way for an energy future that is certain to grow community resilience. The Innisfail Energy Hub is planting the seeds and nurturing ideas to life. With the momentum and resiliency they have cultivated, they’re sure to have an abundant harvest – putting the town squarely on the map of places leading Alberta’s energy transformation today for a brighter tomorrow. 

P.S. The Co-op donuts are worth the drive.

Ailsa Popilian is a Communications Specialist and Project Advisor with the Energy Futures Lab, and Climate Stories Program Ambassador.