Interview

Changemaking in Alberta’s Energy Sector: EQUS

Written by Naomi Mahaffy

Earlier this summer I had the privilege of speaking with Pat Bourne, a dynamo changemaker and the CEO of EQUS, a member-owned electricity distribution company serving over 30,000 people in rural Alberta. 

27 years ago, Pat was hired as the very first employee of the Central Alberta Rural Electrification Association (CAREA). CAREA began as an amalgamation of a few REAs with a collective total of 1800 members. CAREA grew into EQUS, and now consists of over 100 employees who provide services to members spanning from Barrhead south to the U.S. border. 

As EQUS’ CEO, Pat considers it her goal to find new and innovative ways to help rural households and businesses get reliable and affordable power, while also enriching their lives and their communities. 

Member-Owned Energy Distribution and Member-Driven Community Engagement

From the very beginning, Pat says, EQUS’ board was exceptionally dedicated. It consisted of independent farmers who came together with a genuine desire to enrich the lives of their families and communities. Board meetings would start at 7 pm and go until 2 am at times. 

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As a rural-based, rural-focused, and community-driven cooperative, EQUS believes in the value of giving back to the communities it serves and calls home. Its team has raised over $120,000 for community initiatives, including foodbanks and rural mental health through various fundraisers, and its staff regularly volunteer for local community initiatives. EQUS’ Operation Round Up program gives members the option to round their bills up to the next highest dollar, providing a pool of funds that contribute to rurally-based community programs for youth and seniors. 97% of members choose to round up their bills to support this program.

EQUS has changed the energy distribution system in their region. EQUS’ jurisdiction is the only distribution service area that openly competes for customers with an investor owned utility. Pat says this model has proven that a monopoly isn’t the only option, and that both companies’ customers/members benefit from the extra competition.



Locally-driven energy transition

“We don’t talk about climate change,” Pat told me. “We talk about the future. We talk about how to reduce dependency on the grid. We talk about how to create more opportunities that create value for our members.” Pat sees EQUS’ work as engaging with the “radical middle,” helping Albertans who genuinely care about their communities and the environment find meaningful--but not polarizing--opportunities to move towards the future they want for their communities. Participating in the Energy Futures Lab helped Pat listen to diverse perspectives, think about the energy future Alberta should be moving towards, and find opportunities to collaborate. 

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EQUS is constantly innovating to respond to our changing world. An EQUS pilot program in 2018 created the backbone for a future ultra-rural smart grid, the first of its kind in Canada. Incentive and loan programs encourage members to adopt and connect micro-generators and community generators. Micro-generation has become more popular and affordable over the past decade. As more members connect technologies like solar and wind generators to the grid, EQUS ensures that safety features like switches and signage are included at every site. As chair of Decentralized Energy Canada, Pat is seeing more interest in decentralizing energy than ever before. 

EQUS is also leading by example, demonstrating innovation and reducing their own dependence on the grid with the design of the building that will soon be their new corporate headquarters. The 19,000 square foot office is currently under construction just off Highway 2 in Innisfail and details are being finalized to realize a ‘Near Net Zero’ energy concept. While they will still be grid connected, they will reduce their dependence through the use of solar panels with battery storage, and a high-efficiency natural gas combined heat and power system that will generate electricity while providing heat for the building and sidewalks in the winter. An intelligent building management system will integrate all these systems to maximize operating efficiencies and create an innovative near net zero system with minimal usage from the grid. 



Summary

Pat and EQUS are serving rural Albertans while also quietly shifting where power is generated and who owns power distribution lines in the communities they serve. We’ll be keeping an eye on this innovative cooperative in the years ahead.



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This blog post was written by Naomi Mahaffy, ABSI Connect’s Facilitator. ABSI Connect works to connect, align, celebrate, strengthen, and learn from Albertan change-makers who are finding innovative ways to address the complex problems their communities face.  Do you have a story, idea, or insight you’d like to share with the ABSI Connect community? Let us know.

Images provided by EQUS