The end of an eco era

Mary MacKay comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on January 14, 2013
Kirk Brown, who was once director of research for the Institute of Man and Resources, stands in front of the P.E.I. Energy Systems Waste Plant in Charlottetown, which is one of a number of P.E.I. landmarks that began as IMR projects.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY MARY MACKAY

The Institute of Man and Resources (IMR) is officially no more.

Formed in response to the energy crisis in the 1970s, this not-for-profit independent research organization has left its mark on Prince Edward Island with various cutting edge projects that are now part of the landscape.

“The Atlantic Wind Test site at North Cape, Charlottetown’s district heating systems, the energy-from-waste plant, the P.E.I. Energy Corporation had all or part of their origins in (IMR),” says Kirk Brown, who was hired to be director of research for the newly formed institute in 1977 by the late Andy Wells, who was then principal secretary to Liberal Premier Alex Campbell.

The institute was created by an Act of the P.E.I. legislature in 1975 following a period in which Campbell and Wells worked to identify ways to reduce the Island’s dependence on external resources.

“I give Andy (who was IMR’s founding executive director) most of the credit for some of these things because he was the pusher on this stuff. He and Alex toured various organizations all around Canada and the United States and made contacts with people who could advise them on what this institute should do,” Brown says.

A team of like-minded individuals put together a proposal to the federal Department of Energy, Mines and Resources that led to a three-year, $6-million 50-50 cost shared contract for IMR to implement the Canada-Prince Edward Island Agreement on Renewable Energy Development.

The official start date for the agreement was April 1, 1977.

IMR is often associated with the now bygone Ark for Prince Edward Island, a bioshelter experiment in sustainable living. The organization became project manager for the ark at the request of a federal/provincial management committee.

IMR’s projects also demonstrated renewable and sustainable energy options available to people, such as solar domestic water heaters and efficient wood burning stoves and furnaces and energy efficient houses.

IMR’s work was aimed mostly at individuals — humankind as it were — rather than corporations.

“We weren’t trying to help the corporations to do better; we were trying to find ways for people to become more self-reliant,” Brown says.

“(But) we thought we also needed to get corporations involved, so let’s have the province set up an energy corporation that could be responsible for larger projects and those kinds of things.”

With an advisory committee of P.E.I. government and Maritime Electric managers, the P.E.I. Energy Corporation came into being in 1980, under newly elected Premier Angus MacLean’s Progressive Conservative government. Brown became the first managing director on loan from the IMR for one year.

In 1977, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital was still in the planning stage. David Baxendale, who was working with the P.E.I. Department of Health to set up the project, approached IMR to see if there was any other suitable source of energy to heat the building besides oil.

“So we thought about the possibility of using garbage because garbage was just being wasted and buried at a time when areas for waste disposal were becoming scarce, and there were a number of places in North America that were using it. So we toured around looked at all these other spots,” Brown says.

This led to a proposal for support that led to funding for the Energy From Waste Plant, which was constructed in 1981 to burn municipal solid waste to provide steam heat to the QEH. It officially opened in 1983.

Following privatization, this plant, now known as the P.E.I. Energy Systems Waste Plant, and several smaller systems were combined to create the Charlottetown district heating system, which now provides heat to nearby provincial government buildings, other larger private buildings in the downtown area and more. An IMR demonstration of energy efficient houses still exists in the Hillsborough area of Charlottetown.

In the early 1980s a proposal was sent out to architects and engineering firms for plans to build five energy efficient houses of different designs in a cul-de-sac.

“We put a cost limit on it that it would have to cost less than $40,000 (each),” Brown says.

“They were a little different looking so Islanders didn’t take to them right away,” Brown laughs.

Funding for IMR became more and more scarce as a glut of cheap oil flooded the market in the early 1980s.

“We had no more work to do of any significance after about ‘85. Once the price of oil dropped there was no way you could get money for the kind of stuff that we were doing, except for the wind test site, and that carried on,” Brown says.

“(IMR was basically) dormant, except it had responsibility for the wind test site until the Wind Energy Institute of Canada came along and then the (federal government) took over complete responsibility of the site.”

In 1990, an author was hired to compile the extensive history of IMR. The Institute of Man and Resources: An Environmental Fable by Alan MacEachern was published by Island Studies Press and released in 2003.

When the decision was recently made to wrap up IMR’s affairs, board members arranged to donate all files to UPEI.

There was still money in the coffers so donations of $10,000 were given to Island Nature Trust and the Environmental Coalition of P.E.I.

“There’s a real legacy (from the Institute of Man and Resources) . . . ,” says Brown. “You have the energy from waste plant, you have the district heating in Charlottetown and the whole wind (sector) that’s here. And that’s all here because of Andy Wells, with help from people all along feeding in.”