The Future List: Renewable energy advocate Dick Bakker combines fiscal, social values to push solar power
People & Places

The Future List: Renewable energy advocate Dick Bakker combines fiscal, social values to push solar power

“I tend to walk fast,” says Dick Bakker as we hotfoot it toward a solar-power set-up on his property in Manotick Station. Bakker — who once played defensive tackle and end for Queen’s University and, at 65, still looks fit and strong — gives the impression of knowing only one direction: forward, in high gear.

That’s especially true when it comes to renewable energy co-operatives — community-owned projects that harness alternative energy, ultimately reducing our reliance on non-renewable energy and earning money for shareholders. Bakker installed his solar system in 2010 beside the converted barn that houses One World Bazaar, the annual pop-up artisan bazaar he has run with his wife and children for almost two decades. The system was installed under Ontario’s microFIT program, an initiative that encouraged small-scale renewable electricity generation by guaranteeing participants a set price for producing it, whether the electricity was consumed on-site or fed into the grid. He has explained the system to countless others, but Bakker’s enthusiasm remains infectious as he runs his hand over the controls mounted on the side of the barn, outlining, in layperson’s terms, what each one does.

Then Bakker, who is wearing shorts and no jacket on a chilly, damp fall morning, surprises by saying, “I’m not an environmentalist. I’m a business person.” The solar system was an investment he and his wife, Peggy, made to help fund their retirement. He says the environment does, of course, benefit from renewable energy.

“In the Ontario context, the biggest advantage solar offers is to shave the peak demand level,” he says, explaining solar prevents “dirty natural-gas peaker plants” from kicking in to meet demand. The more renewable energy available, the less we have to rely on those plants. And even that has a practical economic implication in Bakker’s calculus because, unlike locally produced renewable energy, electricity from those polluting centralized plants must be shipped to the user over long transmission lines.

That same practicality defines his commitment to renewable energy co-ops, including Ottawa Renewable Energy Co-operative (OREC), which he co-founded in 2010 with four partners. He served as president for seven years and remains an active investor. OREC partners with schools, institutions, municipalities, and businesses to develop and purchase renewable-energy projects. Since 2010, it has raised $10 million from members, who now number 840. Those members now co-own 23 projects across the province with a total generating capacity of 6.45 MW, enough to power over 1,100 homes.

Approaching sustainable energy from a fiscal point of view — and with a lot of determination — has proven successful for the co-founder of the Ottawa Renewable Energy Co-operative. Photo by Christian Lalonde

Projects range from rooftop arrays on École secondaire catholique Paul-Desmarais and the Canada Science and Technology Museum to a ground-mount system in Alfred built in partnership with the Keewaywin First Nation, which OREC says is the first of its kind in Canada. OREC also has a solar generating system on the roof of the bazaar barn that produces five times as much electricity — 50 kWh compared with 10 — as his own original set-up.

Bakker says that co-operatives and commercial renewable-energy providers should work together. “There’s no path to a sustainable-energy system without the communities receiving a direct benefit, because NIMBY is the enemy of all things environmental. NIMBYism will delay and shove more costs on big corporate projects. It’s to the corporate world’s benefit to have community ownership, and the more community ownership there is, the more people will see the benefits.”

He likens this kind of “industrialization” to the way villages used to function, with a cheese factory, a brewery, and an electricity-generating station all vital parts of the landscape. “Co-operatives provide a democratic business model for citizens to own the change they want to see.”

Bakker’s interest in renewable energy dates back to the early 1970s, when Middle Eastern oil producers ignited an international energy crisis by imposing an oil embargo because of Western support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War against Egypt. “I have a natural interest in the interaction of politics, policy, and energy,” he says, recalling the 2010 documentary Powerful: Energy for Everyone by green activist and former Ottawa municipal councillor David Chernushenko. “It led to my understanding of co-ops as a business model.”

Renewable-energy co-operatives are nothing new. They’ve existed in such countries as Denmark and Germany since the early 2000s, and Bakker estimates there are now over two dozen in Canada. But he’s frustrated by what he perceives as a lack of interest from the government. “There’s a lot of untapped capital in this city, and the governments don’t understand it. There’s money sitting in savings accounts or the stock market. … If you can invest with a fair return in something in your community that you know is benefiting locally, the electrons are staying local, the jobs are staying local, the profits are staying local, would you invest in that or in something in the Toronto stock market?”

Potential earnings in the stock market may sound more alluring to many than OREC’s annual dividends, which have averaged 3.5 per cent over its history. But Bakker says members are eager to invest. “We have never had a problem raising capital from our members — the co-op is there to serve its members and is successful because of their interest and efforts.”

Dick Bakker of the Ottawa Renewable Energy Co-operative  stands among the solar panels on the roof of École secondaire catholique Franco Cité on Smyth Road. Photo by Wayne Cuddington/Postmedia

While he’s gracious in answering questions about his personal background, he continually steers the conversation back to renewable-energy co-ops.

“He never gives up,” says Roger Peters, a cofounder of OREC. “Most people look for reasons something won’t work. Dick is just the opposite.”

Graham Findlay, an OREC board member, concurs. “Dick is a bellwether and really good at turning over stones and getting in front of decision makers who are grappling with problems. Other people don’t see a way out of problems, but Dick does. He’s always alert to the big picture.”

Bakker — who is not above spending a few minutes of our interview time picking up trash knocked over by a raccoon after a One World Bazaar event the previous evening — is less than fond of big institutions and their frequently opaque operations. That includes government, which he says has failed to ensure its policies keep pace with advances in the renewable-energy sector, including a steady tumble in prices for solar equipment.

His commitment to local action can be traced to his upbringing as a child of Dutch immigrants who, in the 1950s, opened a general store and gas station — and later added a farm — in Manotick Station. His brother Henry still runs Bakker’s General Store, which has its own microFIT solar system.

“I come from a small business — I grew up in a store,” says Bakker, whose own adult children, Anneka and Case, know about small business thanks to One World Bazaar, which Anneka now manages. The most important lesson he learned growing up that way? “You have an obligation to help.

At Queen’s, he completed a BA in politics, history, and economics and, in 1980, an MBA. Bakker then worked in the computer, telecom, and internet sectors for over 20 years before moving on to the bazaar (for many years known as Third World Bazaar) and, later, the renewable-energy sector. Along with his OREC work, Bakker serves as president of CoEnergy Ontario Co-operative, a new entity that provides building retrofit and energy-efficiency services.

Asked about retiring, Bakker grins and asks, in return, “You think you’re going to meet me on the golf course? You want to stay engaged and keep doing stuff.”

Then a more far-reaching question: “Do you think we can keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius?” After a long pause, he responds: “I’d like not to hand our kids and grandchildren a worse situation. I have a friend who’s frantic about that. I’m not. I’m cautiously optimistic, that’s my nature.

“The world has lots of problems and always will. My parents came through World War II. They left thinking Holland had no future, and they were dead wrong. Now we’re in this situation, which has a lot of similarities to the ’30s and ’40s, and we’ll be wrong in our pessimism as well.”