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A Renewable Energy Expert Tells Us How to Inspire Communities

The Indigenous Clean Energy Network’s Eryn Stewart on people-powered change.

by VICE Staff
Mar 4 2020, 9:45pm

The article is part of RE: GENERATION a VICE and Toyota partnership highlighting the people and stories around Canada’s growing sustainable energy movement.

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When Eryn Stewart was a kid, she and her dad came across a deer while hiking through Hamilton’s pristine Red Hill Valley. At the time, the woods were being cleared to make room for a new highway, and Stewart remembers the deer looking up at her, exposed in the barren land.

“I was probably… 8? It was kind of a pivotal moment for me, seeing this deer cross over where the road would be,’” she remembers. “It just didn’t sit well.” Today, that highway carries over 70,000 vehicles a day through Hamilton, and deer have moved on, but the encounter sticks with Stewart. She knew she wanted to find a balance between the natural world and the demands of industrialized society; negotiating that middle ground has become her calling. The 27-year-old is the Director of the Indigenous Clean Energy Social Enterprise’s 20/20 Catalysts Program, a Canada-wide capacity-building and mentorship program dedicated to advancing Indigenous leadership in the clean energy sector.

Stewart was only 22 when she helped to develop the Catalysts Program, which, four years in, has supported over 80 Indigenous community leaders setting up solar fields, wind farms, biomass and hydropower projects from Haida Gwaii to Nunatsiavut. From her office in Ottawa, Stewart spoke to us about her work, and what to do to help our imperiled planet.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VICE: How would you describe your job to someone outside the energy sector?
Eryn Stewart: We work with Indigenous communities to support the clean energy project initiatives that they’d like to do. It’s very community-driven; we try to support them in whatever capacity they need.

Reliable energy is something most of us take for granted. How important is it to bring this to light in each community?
There are so many pressing things in everyone’s daily lives - putting food on the table for families, health concerns, infrastructure, you name it. But energy intersects in so many different ways that are so vital to the webbing and everything around a community. Putting it at the forefront of the conversation and showing people these intersections is something that we really strive to do.

We try to empower Catalysts, or community energy champions, to start a dialogue around energy so people don’t just turn on the lights and think, “Oh, the lights are on.” They think, “Oh, the lights are on, and it’s currently being powered by a diesel generator in our community,” or “Our heating bill, maybe I can reduce it just slightly this month and that can help my family.” What’s important to you is going to be different from what’s important to me, and so it’s figuring out what’s important to them or their community and then having a discussion around it.

Have you had much interest from young people in the Catalysts Program?
Of the participants in the program, 22% have been youth between 18-30. We haven’t been trying to hit targets. Young people have stepped up in their communities.

I love that, because I think that sometimes you get boxed in… I don’t often define myself as a youth for that reason. Young people don’t need to have a seat at the board as “youth,” we just need to have a seat at the board.

You’ve spoken about “clean energy paralysis” — understanding the benefits of clean energy as a concept, but feeling unable to effect change ourselves — is this something you’ve experienced?
Yes. We started developing the Catalysts Program when I was 22. We had to raise $600k to create the programming, get mentors on board, and find 18 ‘Catalysts’ to take part in this random initiative. It was the most stressed I’ve been in my life. Feeling like, “Why am I the one to be doing this? What if everyone hates it?” There were many times when I wanted to give up.

But having taken that risk and tried, having gone through it all and accomplished something, I feel so much more confident to do other things. That has grown into every aspect of my life where I can say, “Well, Eryn, remember that time you did this, which seemed impossible? Now, you can definitely do it.”

For those of us who aren’t ready to embark on DIY clean energy projects -- what can we do to decrease our fossil fuel consumption?
Renewable energy projects make the headlines, they look really good, everybody loves them, progress, this and that. But where real impact happens is actually in energy efficiency and conservation.

The best place for young people to start is in their own backyard. Look at what’s needed in your own community that you don’t see happening. Housing is key, start there. Things like LED lighting, installing a faucet aerator, electric thermostats, high efficiency showerheads, making sure your house is well-insulated. Then noticing, “Oh, we have this arena in our community. I wonder how much energy it’s using. I wonder what kind of energy assessments have been done there.”

At the beginning of last year I made a list of ten things I wanted to do personally to decrease my carbon footprint. I said, “I am going to make sure I have more glass containers rather than plastic. I’m going to have cutlery that I put in my purse, so I reduce my plastic waste that way. I’m going to buy carbon offsets for all of my flights.” So, I made this list and just tried to pick them off in small chunks. Those become second nature — you don’t even think about them by the end of the year. Then you can come up with another list, and keep adding to it.

I think when we talk about global standards and global sustainability initiatives, there is a way to get quite swept up in higher level action. But on-the-ground work is actually where things are needed to impact change, in terms of climate change.

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You can read about the 20/20 Catalysts Program here, or watch Eryn tactfully field questions about climate change from a group of school children here.

Tagged:
environment
energy
climate change
renewable energy
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