When Ted Curry feels the energy of sunlight streaming into his home, he can’t help but want to capture it.
Curry, who lives in Goulais River near Sault Ste. Marie, is part of a growing number of Ontarians looking to become their own power plant, generating renewable energy with technology such as solar photovoltaic (PV) panels and selling it back to the province at attractive, government-sponsored rates.
"The environmental reality is that we have to make changes in how we generate power," said Curry, the owner of Superior Energy Solutions. "This is going to be a cornerstone of Ontario’s energy plan."
In late 2006, the Ontario Power Authority (OPA), the province’s electricity planning agency, made Ontario the first jurisdiction in North America to allow private citizens to generate and sell their own electricity.
Modelled after programs in Germany and Japan, the Renewable Energy Standard Offer Program (RESOP) pays guaranteed, preferential rates over a 20-year term for wind, solar, hydro or biomass developments that have capacities of less than 10 megawatts and connect to a local distribution grid.
The idea of the program is not to get Ontarians "off the grid," but rather to encourage citizens to help supply the province’s energy distribution network with renewable energy. Solar energy generated under RESOP sells for 42 cents per kilowatt-hour — roughly five times the rate charged by most regional utilities distribution companies. "It empowers folks to be on equal footing with large energy producers like (Ontario Power Generation) in a sense that they can generate power and sell it for profit," said Toronto-based renewable energy consultant Paul Charbonneau. "Americans and Europeans are lauding this legislation."
Trouble is, admits Charbonneau, northern Ontario utilities commissions are "a year behind" southern Ontario in enabling residents to take advantage of the province’s incentives.
"Most of the effort in getting these things up and running is securing the necessary permits to sell power back to the grid," said Charbonneau, who recently presented a seminar on solar energy in Wawa, Ont., and expects to tour the Trans-Canada Highway corridor in Ontario again in February.
Charbonneau is quick to point out that it’s not the utilities companies’ fault in adapting to Ontario’s evolving energy landscape.
"As people learn more about renewable energy and start asking their utilities commissions about it, we’ll see more projects in the north," he said. "It’s only a matter of time."
According to the OPA’s website, northern Ontario has limited transmission capacity, meaning that access to the grid is restricted for new developments.
"Our concern is that we don’t want to buy power in places where it can’t be delivered," said Mary Bernard, the OPA’s corporate communications specialist.
Charbonneau’s Riverdale neighbourhood in Toronto was among the province’s first to take advantage of RESOP. More than 60 households formed the Riverdale Initiative for Solar Energy, which purchased solar PV panels in bulk and lobbied to establish a framework whereby individual energy producers could become "grid-tied" with the city’s electricity distribution network.
Just more than a year later, Charbonneau said there are now more than 450 Toronto households involved.
Still, Ontario is light-years behind its German counterparts. At the end of 2007, only 0.3 megawatts of solar-generated power went toward Ontario’s 31,000-megawatt annual capacity. By comparison, Germany produces 3,000 megawatts of solar energy. (One megawatt of consistent energy production will meet the annual energy needs of about 220 households.)
Germany’s 300,000-plus household-scale solar producers make 83 cents per kilowatt-hour sold to the grid — nearly twice Ontario’s rate. Little wonder, the German solar power sector employs more than 50,000 people.
However, Ontario’s solar economy is heating up. In 2007, the OPA inked deals for more than 140 solar initiatives, including a 60-megawatt facility in Sault Ste. Marie. If completed, these contracts would increase Ontario’s solar output by 250 megawatts. Meanwhile, RESOP has the lofty goal of getting 100,000 solar systems installed in Ontario households.
Charbonneau said Canadians have been slower to accept solar energy because "they need to see it and learn how it works first." His Energy Advocate consulting firm presents seminars such as the one held in Wawa and works with Ontario school boards to bring solar energy into classrooms.
Much of Charbonneau’s efforts have been directed at encouraging the installation of rooftop solar PV panels on schools, churches and other public buildings. Canadian Press