SUNPOWER - How Ontario is jump-starting the solar-energy economy

Canadian Geographic magazine: By John Lorinc - April, 2008 Issue

The sun is nowhere to be seen on a rainy fall evening in Aubrey Spring's damp backyard, but its power is certainly top of mind. Spring, a teacher, is banking on solar energy to put his home and his Toronto neighbourhood on a more sustainable footing. On the garage roof, 12 new photovoltaic panels generate a flow of electrons when exposed to the sun. The panels are wired to a gadget the size of a medicine cabinet attached to an inside wall that converts those stimulated electrons into enough electricity to illuminate twenty 100-watt light bulbs. But the energy isn't being used inside Spring's home. Rather, the power flows through a cable out to the hydro lines on the street, where it is pooled with the electricity supplied by Toronto Hydro. The gadgetry, though remarkable, is designed to be simple, unobtrusive and green. "It's self-producing," he says with a shrug. "No switches to flip, no meters to check."

To run efficiently, all the panels need is some sun plus an enlightened energy policy.Spring and his wife, Beverley Jackson, went solar to take advantage of Ontario's new "standard offer" program, which promotes small renewable-energy projects using preferential guaranteed rates. They earn about $840 a year selling their garage-top power to Toronto Hydro for 42 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), an inversion of the time-honoured utility-consumer relationship. It's by no means a home-run investment, but the return on their $20,000 outlay is equivalent to what they'd earn from a savings bond. And the profits are clean.

Germany approved the tariff almost as an afterthought, says Keith Stewart, an energy analyst for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). But solar power caught on quickly in a country with a long tradition of green politics and soon became a pillar of Germany's energy policies. "It proved to be hugely popular because everyone wanted green power," he says. "By the time the conventional-power sector realized this and tried to squash it, it couldn't." Indeed, the tariff has turned Germany into a green-energy superpower. Today, there are 1.3 million grid-connected solar "plants" in Germany, mostly rooftop installations or community-run solar farms, generating almost 2,500 MW of electricity, an output equivalent to one reactor at the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, east of Toronto. The solar industry, in turn, employs 50,000 people and generates almost $7 billion in annual revenues. By contrast, in 2006, Canada produced a measly 20.5 MW of electricity from photovoltaic cells.

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