July 14, 2023

Five questions with Jessica McDonald, Bridgewater


for the Community Solutions Network

This Innovation Series features some of the inspiring people working on smart solutions in communities across Canada

Jessica McDonald pictured outdoors with foliage in background

Name: Jessica McDonald

Title: Director of Community Development and Energize Bridgewater Project Director 

Organization: Town of Bridgewater

Bridgewater is a small town on the south shore of Nova Scotia, within an hour’s drive of the city of Halifax. From Bridgewater you are only a short distance away from beaches, hiking, and many other activities in nature. Even though Bridgewater is home to just over 9,000 people, it acts as a service hub for neighboring communities because of its hospital, recreation facility, shops and grocery stores. In terms of alternative transportation options, Bridgewater maintains a transit bus and a cycling trail that connects them to neighboring communities. 

Jessica, how did the town learn about and decide to participate in the Smart Cities Challenge? 

In late 2017, the Town was finishing up the development of its Community Energy Investment Plan, which was our plan for transitioning to a low-carbon, affordable energy future. During the process we uncovered a large social issue in our community that we weren’t fully aware of prior to this work.  

The problem is that 2 out of 5 people experience energy poverty in Bridgewater. Our Town Council was aghast to learn that the average household was spending $6,500 per year on their energy bills. In Bridgewater we have an old housing stock, low household incomes, and a high proportion of renters. These factors combine to create the conditions for energy poverty. 

We did not have many options for how we would fund the next steps of our work. In November 2017, the Government of Canada announced the Smart Cities Challenge, and we attended an information session. We felt that the Smart Cities Challenge would be a great opportunity to fund the work that we had discovered was really needed to help those most vulnerable transition to a low-carbon future. We were interested to learn how smart cities innovations could simultaneously tackle energy poverty and climate change at the same time. The timing of the Challenge was very good.

What does Energize Bridgewater do? 

Energize Bridgewater is a project of the Town of Bridgewater to help achieve our goal of reducing the rate of energy poverty in our community by 20% by 2026. We were funded by Infrastructure Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge because what we learn through this project can have national application. We are taking a three-pronged approach to reducing energy poverty.  

  1. We support residents and landlords to pursue energy efficient upgrades to homes and apartments. We are working with Efficiency Nova Scotia to access all the available programs that provide incentives and grants for housing retrofits. The Town also provides low interest financing for any of the retrofits or upgrades. 
  2. We support the South Shore Open Doors Association (SSODA), a local non-profit that delivers our Coordinated Access service. Coordinated Access is a system where an organization keeps track of households who are experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity and connects them to housing and other support services they need. 
  3. We are developing an energy management information system that can be deployed in homes to monitor energy use and recommend ways that residents can reduce their energy costs based on their current habits.  

2 out of 5 people experience energy poverty in Bridgewater. Our Town Council was aghast to learn that the average household was spending $6,500 per year on their energy bills.

Jessica McDonald

What are the obstacles the project has had to overcome? 

Staff recruitment and retention has been our number one challenge. For some positions, we are trying to attract highly skilled staff to a small town that can’t pay private market rates. We thought we just needed a single staff person and that would help us achieve our very complex energy management information system project. That was not a successful approach. Now we have a whole staff team, consultants, and the Nova Scotia Community College working together on the energy management information system. 

We spent the first few years finding out that there were barriers preventing us from achieving our targets. Procurement was a big factor that held us up. We are bound by policy and legislation, our purchasing thresholds are low, and we didn’t have a lot of guidance on innovation in the municipal context. For all those reasons, we spent a whole year mapping out procurement options for our energy management information system.

Did planning and implementation work? What was learned? 

The planning we did through the Smart Cities Challenge application process was pretty detailed and we engaged with the community through the process, which worked really well. This is also how we helped found the South Shore Open Doors Association. We initially wanted to produce renewable energy in Bridgewater through a solar garden but we have regulatory and financial barriers preventing us from doing that.  

Overall, we’ve learned that trying to be innovative in a municipal space is really hard. Covid hit right when we were getting off the ground in a town where we had no experience with this type of project. We’ve had a lot of roadblocks and a lot of learning and growing as a team.

As a planner at the Town, what excites you about your work? 

The potential of this project’s impact on the community. I really do believe in our project, in the vision, and in the outcome. I know our whole team does too. And the partnerships we’ve attracted get me excited because we are going to make a big difference, even outside of Bridgewater. 

You can connect with Jessica on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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