The Ontario government is fixing a glitch in its fledgling bid to become a green-energy powerhouse, offering a lifeline to people worried about losing their solar-panel investments because they can't get a connection to the power grid.
After months of talks with Ontario Power Authority and Hydro One, Energy Minister Brad Duguid on Friday directed the government's power agency to offer a resolution to about 1,500 micro-solar projects that were conditionally approved in locations where the electric system's capacity is constrained.
Owners of these projects, which in some cases cost $100,000, will now be able to move them to a spot where it's possible to feed green power into the grid and generate revenue. They will be responsible for covering any extra fees.
The relocation option comes less than three weeks before the start of the Ontario election campaign, expected to be a close battle between the governing Liberals and Conservatives.
The Tories want to scrap lucrative incentives for green power, contending the government's feed-in-tariff scheme will hike consumers' power bills. The Liberals, however, maintain the two-year-old program, which offers some of the highest prices for solar and wind in the world, is the most effective way to fuel growth of cleaner power and wean the province off coal-fired electricity.
Of the 1,500 proposals to attach solar panels to the ground or to rooftops, the province estimates as many as 200 people have built their projects or paid for equipment. The rest have conditional offers from Ontario Power Authority, but no connection guarantee from Hydro One, the province's largest utility. (Rules were changed in December, 2010 to stem the flow of stranded projects.)
"We want to get these projects built because there are jobs waiting on these projects being approved and being put in the ground," Mr. Duguid said.
In the heady early days of Ontario's renewable energy incentive program, many green-power developers were advising farmers and other landowners that connection of small solar projects wasn't going to be a problem – a widely held belief in the nascent industry.
Roughly 7,000 micro-power projects have been connected provincewide.
At an Ontario Energy Board hearing last week, one retired farmer relayed his struggles with solar. Wayne McLellan and his wife took out a $100,000 loan to build a ground-mounted panel, but were told in February their solar project couldn't be connected to the power system. Mr. McLellan said Friday he doesn't know whether relocation will be a viable option.
This issue isn't the only challenge facing the province's solar sector. With connection backlogs, long waits for regulatory approval and a looming election, segments of the industry have stalled. Many panel installers are without work, while solar-parts manufacturers have seen demand for their product plummet.
Manufacturers in Canada and the United States are also being squeezed by competition from China and solar subsidy cuts in Europe. Earlier this week, a prominent American solar firm, Evergreen Solar, filed for bankruptcy in the U.S.
In southern Ontario, Canadian Solar Solutions is grappling with weak demand for solar panels at its factory in Guelph. Like other solar firms in the province, the manufacturer had expected Ontario's green-power industry would be booming by now.
Instead, Canadian Solar Solutions is operating only one of three production lines, and has put off plans to expand its workforce to 500 people from 350.
"There are challenges across the board," chief executive officer Milfred Hammerbacher said of Ontario's solar industry. "I really feel that we're in danger here of losing a great opportunity."