The arrival of United Solar, WindTronics and other alternative energy players seemed to signal Ontario’s plan to create a renewable energy economy was working.
Empty factories built to serve the once-booming auto sector were transforming into green energy hubs, promising a wave of badly needed jobs to financially battered cities like Windsor.
“This is big,” Sandra Pupatello, then minister of economic development and trade, declared when WindTronics, a maker of small wind turbines, opened in the fall of 2009, one of the first manufacturers to set up as a result of the Liberal government’s green energy program. “[It’s] a real page turner for the local economy.”
A page has turned, just not the one expected. United Solar, WindTronics and a plant built by Spain’s Siliken SA have all shuttered their Windsor operations within the past eight months.
With the trio of closings, the promise of 480 jobs has evaporated, a major setback for a city with the country’s highest unemployment rate. Their speedy demise is also a blow to the province’s bid to become a green energy powerhouse, and industry experts expect more factory shutdowns and slowdowns are around the corner.
“The market hasn’t been there for anybody,” said Paco Caudet, general manager of Siliken Canada Corp. “We’ve been losing money for a lot of months and there’s no real prospect of things getting better.”
The key problem is this: Despite the provincial government setting domestic content rules to bolster manufacturing and offering to pay some of the most lucrative prices in the world for green power, the markets for solar and small wind are nowhere near what the industry expected.
There has been a flood of proposals, but many projects have been stymied, waiting for administrative approval or connection to the electricity grid. The glut of solar panels worldwide hasn’t helped manufacturers, either, significantly pushing down prices for their product.
“It’s flawed policy architecture, and now it has come home to roost,” said Jatin Nathwani, executive director of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy at the University of Waterloo.
After Siliken’s closing, Ontario Energy Minister Chris Bentley acknowledged that the job losses were unfortunate, but he maintained that the province’s future in renewable energy production and manufacturing is bright.
The government completed a review of its feed-in tariff program in April and this week the minister issued a directive to the Ontario Power Authority to finalize rule changes and lower prices for green power. The minister expects the backlog of power projects will soon ease.
“Any industry in the early stages, there are companies that set up and then decide to move elsewhere and there are companies that set up and flourish,” Mr. Bentley said. “That is the nature of a fast-growing and fast-moving industry.”
Despite the recent closings, Ron Gaudet, executive director of Windsor-Essex Economic Development Corp., remains optimistic. With a skilled labour force and empty factories to fill, municipal and business leaders have been aggressively promoting Windsor to solar and wind companies in Canada and overseas.
Several other green energy firms plan to open in the region or have already, such as CS Wind Corp., which has a deal to make wind turbines for South Korean giant, Samsung C&T Corp.
“Renewable energies are not a shot in the dark. It’s not going to fizzle out. It’s a reality,” Mr. Gaudet said.
But the region had expected 1,000 green energy jobs by now, not the 400 or so that exist today. Mr. Gaudet wants the government, utilities and industry to work together and fix the program’s glitches.
“We don’t need more closures to show that this is a real issue,” he said.