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Solar energy hotbed

The London Free Press: DEBORA VAN BRENK - March 28, 2010

As winter melts into spring, Southwestern Ontario is quickly powering up to become Canada's biggest solar energy hotbed.

From small rooftop solar cells and pole-mounted panels that swivel like sunflowers, to a Sarnia venture that's touted to become the largest energy producer of its kind on the continent, the region is in a sunshine state of mind.

It's not because we're high on the list of continental hotspots - no city around here even cracks the top 25 on a list of 100 sunniest Canadian locales.

Instead, what Southwestern Ontario has is a winning trifecta for solar-power production:

Ready access to power grids and enough people to use it.

Land and roof space aplenty.

Provincial subsidies that outshine almost any on the planet.

All that has led to a sort of controlled gold rush here - with thousands of jobs and millions of dollars at stake - as companies and individuals race to pan their own shiny nugget of sun.

* * *

"We're working 18 hours a day, seven days a week," says Kelly Rumble, head of Rumble Energy, which has supplied, installed or leased about 200 small solar systems in Southwestern Ontario, including more than 20 in London.

"It's a hotbed for us," Rumble says. "London - it's where the rooftops are and it's where the population is that understands solar as an investment."

Clients include Andrew Hall-Holland of GreenPower in London, who just installed a 50-panel array atop a small-industrial building on Adelaide St., near Princess Ave.

"I don't think you can find a better investment as well as an ethical investment," Hall-Holland says.

Collectively, the panels will supply a maximum 10 kilowatts of power to the London Hydro grid - about three homes' worth at peak output.

The materials cost Hall-Holland about $60,000 and he expects to recoup his costs in about five years.

Empty rooftops are now being viewed as tappable resources. Two examples:

Fanshawe College just installed an array atop its "B" building, a project that will also help its students monitor output and devise ways of improving its efficiency.

The London District Catholic school board is seeking to lease its school roofs to Ameresco Canada for solar panels. "Our objective is to have as many of these on rooftops as (technically) possible," maybe as much space as would cover 33 football fields, says Mark Weaver the board's assistant business superintendent.

Although the power generated at each spot would be "nowhere near sufficient to operate a school," Weaver says, "this project allows us to take advantage of a space that folks have already paid for" through their school taxes and to make green money from it.

* * *

At the other end of the size scale is southeast Sarnia, where First Solar Canada is touting an 80-megawatt system - 20 megawatts are online now and another 60 megawatts are in the works - as the largest of its kind in North America.

When the $300-million expansion is done about a year from now, the sun's rays will be absorbed into more than one million solar panels.

Energy distributor Enbridge, which has contracted to buy that energy, estimates the solar farm will produce enough energy to power 12,800 homes and will annually result in 39,000 fewer tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels) in the atmosphere.

First Solar has several other solar farms planned, including in Belmont, east of London, and in St. Clair Township southwest of Sarnia.

All of First Solar's Ontario projects were proposed under an Ontario incentive program (called the standard-offer program, recently phased out) that will provide the producer 42 cents for every kilowatt-hour fed into the power grid.

* * *

Harnessing solar energy isn't cheap.

Photovoltaic cells are expensive and only about 25% efficient.

Unlike fossil fuels, solar energy source can't be tapped into around the clock.

(Even Sarnia, the sunniest place in the region, gets 2062 hours of sun a year - not even the equivalent of three months' worth. Peter White, head of the London Economic Development Corp., says London's "solar profile" is far better than Environment Canada's 85th-place ranking of the Forest City would suggest.) So what makes solar such an Ontario growth industry, and why now?

Money.

Producers get as much as 80.2 cents per kilowatt-hour - the price depending on the size and location of the project - to feed solar energy into the power grid.

That's a big premium and a huge incentive: most homeowners buy their home hydro for less than 7 cents/kwh.

The subsidy is part of a provincial program called a Feed-In Tariff (FIT) or, for small projects less than 10 kilowatts, a micro-FIT.

Without FIT and micro-FIT, says Rumble, there's no way the sun would be rising on solar power here. "There'd be no incentive for it. The only systems you'd see going in would be systems off-grid."

The tariffs are the highest in North America, and comparable to those in Germany.

"In terms of cost, I do agree right now it might not make much sense economically, if you look at just the economics of it," says Tarlochan Sidhu, chairperson of the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Western Ontario. He is also chair of Power Systems Engineering for Hydro One, where his job is to make sure various forms of power are integrated into the larger power grid.

An average home system might cost $30,000 and pay for itself in 12 years - it's a long-term investment with a big initial outlay.

But, he notes, photovoltaic cells are becoming less expensive and more efficient. He foresees 40% efficiency not far away.

With similar subsidies, Germany has become a world leader, with 5,000 megawatts of solar-power production online.

"We have a lot of catching up to do. They were at this level 15, 20 years back," Sidhu says.

In the few months since the province announced its renewable energy program, the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) has received more than 6,100 applications for small-scale solar installations, says Ben Chin, vice-president communications at OPA.

Of those small projects, OPA has sent out 2,000 conditional offers, totalling 50 megawatts of power. "It's been a tremendous, tremendous response from Ontarians," Chin says.

If 100,000 homes signed up for the micro-FIT program, they would still collectively generate only the equivalent of 1% of Ontario's electricity supply.

And under the big-FiT program, the OPA has received 1,200 applications - most of them wind energy - that would generate 9,000 megawatts of power.

That's about one-third of Ontario's peak daily consumption.

Sidhu says solar is still a worthwhile pursuit. "It will be a hybrid solution to an energy problem," together with wind and nuclear power, he says.

Hall-Holland says solar will help smooth out the bumps during peak energy consumption times. When Ontarians crank up air conditioners during heat waves, the province often has to buy power at a premium higher than that offered through the FIT program.

And, he notes, those who decry the high cost of renewable energy forget the hidden costs of fossil fuels, including loss of air quality.

Chin agrees: "We're coming out of the dark ages of energy use.The days of pouring (electricity) like water are gone. And, frankly, we shouldn't be pouring water like that, either."

* * *

Premier Dalton McGunity says the Green Energy Plan - which includes a requirement that FIT-approved projects have at least 40% Ontario content - will help generate 50,000 "green collar" jobs.

The biggest plum in the green-job pie is promised in a provincial agreement with Samsung C&T Corp. and Korean Electric Power Corp. to build four solar- and wind-component plants.

It's a $7-billion prize, coveted by many in the region:

In Sarnia, Mayor Mike Bradley says his city is "the bright light" that's leading the solar path for the entire area. The city and county are working on a strategy to attract even more green job.

The London Economic Development Corp. is marketing its strengths, with 23 renewable-energy research projects at UWO and other solar research and development at Fanshawe College. This area gets a big thumbs-up in financial and moral support from London Hydro, whose CEO Vinay Sharma is smoothing the path for many micro-FITS locally.

St. Thomas's vacant Sterling truck plant could be ideal for at least some of Samsung's plans, politicians there say. Chatham-Kent, Essex and Haldimand also claim primacy in the green field.

* * *

Some farmers are viewing solar as a harvestable crop, with prices more predictable than a bushel of corn or a pound of beef.

Joe Botscheller is a former tobacco farmer in Norfolk and a director of Farmers for Economic Activity, an 85-farmer buying network building small-scale solar installations.

Bottscheller says solar gives farmers a steady flow of income in the face of fluctuating commodity prices and it provides clean energy to the regional power grid. "There's a set price. We know exactly what we're going to get."

Bottscheller has applied to install the equivalent of 65 square feet of panels. The post-mounted panels will swivel, pivot and tilt depending on the season and time of day - "exactly like a sunflower," he says. The small array would fit on yards once occupied by tobacco kilns.

But harvesting the sun on agricultural land has detractors, too.

In Belmont, First Solar is looking to build a solar farm that would produce enough energy for 2,800 homes.

Acting Central Elgin Mayor Tom Marks isn't so sure it's the right place and says he feels municipal planning processes are being trumped by provincial energy policies. Marks would prefer solar panels on brownfields - a landfill site, a factory footprint, for example - instead of on farmland.

Likewise, Don McCabe, a vice-president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and an Inwood-area farmer, says a proposed First Solar project in St. Clair Township could be better situated elsewhere. "There's rooftops everywhere, yet they continue to expand on farmland," he said recently.

First Solar Canada vice-president Peter Carrie says the solar imprint on the land is small. He said during a public meeting for a proposed St. Clair Township project that, "More good agricultural land has been taken out of use for golf courses."

* * *

The next 24 months will be the busiest period ever in Ontario solar history, predicts White of the LEDC.

"Because of the Green Energy Act, there's a lot of opportunity and there's going to be a short window to see who the main (business) players are going to be," White says.

He says small, medium and large companies are jockeying for position and primacy in the marketplace.

"There's a bit of a gold-rush mentality" that's both been encouraged by, and controlled by, provincial incentives and regulations, White says. "It's going to be a sort of consolidation process as the business matures."

E-mail deb.vanbrenk@sunmedia.ca, or follow Debatlfpress on Twitter.