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On the roof of his south Ottawa home, 33 solar panels are generating power for Samir Basaria which he sells to Ontario’s electricity grid. He talks with David Cork from iSolara which installed the panels.

Blair Gable

Samir Basaria touches the screen of his iPad and it displays exactly how much electricity each of the 33 solar panels on the roof of his south Ottawa home is generating. Another touch, and the Web-based application shows an hourly tally of power that he has sold to Ontario's electricity grid. Another touch, and there's a timelapse video of solar strength and cloud cover above his home.

Taking out a second mortgage on his home, Mr. Basaria paid $38,000 to have a photovoltaic system installed on his roof at the end of July. The silicon panels can produce up to eight kilowatts of electricity for which the Ontario Power Authority pays 54.9 cents a kilowatt/hour under a 20-year contract, part of the province's feed-in-tariff program designed to boost the supply of renewable power.

The environmental scientist figures he'll pay for the system within 6.4 years and earn 10 per cent on his investment over the life of the contract. In the meantime, he is depositing the revenue directly into his three-year-old son Noah's registered education savings plan at the rate of $350 a month.

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"I love the fact that I'm saving for my son's university in a green fund and, at the same time, offsetting my carbon footprint," he said, adding he has already reduced his carbon dioxide emissions by nearly one tonne in the 1 1/2 months his system has been producing. While he's become somewhat addicted to monitoring it on his smartphone and iPad, he said he could just as easily ignore it for all the work it requires of him.

Mr. Basaria is part of a growing solar army made up of individuals, companies and institutions that are turning unused roof space into power generating stations that produce electricity at peak, daytime hours close to consumers so as to avoid the need for costly and disruptive transmission lines. Fuelled by generous provincial subsidies, the solar industry is heating up in Ontario with installers erecting panels on residential and commercial roofs at an unprecedented pace across the province. The activity in Ontario reflects a worldwide boom – installed capacity is growing at a 50-per-cent clip globally as the cost of solar power continues to fall, though countries like Spain and Germany, which have led the world in installations, pay high electricity prices.

Ontario is alone among the provinces in offering subsidized rates for solar, and almost all of the business in Canada is done in the province. But Alberta is expected to announce its own incentive program this fall, even as Ontario re-examines its long-term energy plan to determine how solar and other sources of supply will fit into the mix.

Among the drivers is a sharp reduction in the price and increase in efficiency in the silicon solar panels that remain the mainstay of the industry. But proponents foresee even greater expansion as solar prices continue to fall, the industry begins to commercialize new nanotechnology applications that will increase efficiency, and advances in electricity storage allow consumers to rely on solar power when the sun is not shining.

Although solar has only a small slice of the generation mix in either Canada or around the world, its proponents argue it is uniquely placed to provide electricity that emits no greenhouse gases, faces no issues over siting, and is remarkably consistent in producing electricity during daylight hours during summer months when demand is high.

At the same time, the cost has fallen rapidly in the past five years and is expected to continue to drop, while prices for other sources of power will either remain flat or increase, said John Gorman, president of the Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSIA).

"It's the dawn of a new era in terms of strategic electricity generation and solar is at the forefront of that," he said.

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Ontario is now revisiting its long-term energy strategy, including the feed-in tariff (FIT) system that provides generous subsidies to solar, wind and small hydro projects. Each sector – nuclear, gas, wind and solar – is submitting its wish list, and making its best argument as to why provincial policy should favour their particular supply source.

Despite its benefits, solar remains a niche player in the overall mix, and requires the highest prices of any source in order for its developers to make a profit. Under a new schedule released in August, the province will pay prices for solar power ranging from 39.6 cents per kilowatt for the smallest rooftop system to 28.8 cents for larger, ground-mounted ones. That compares with 11.5 cents per kilowatt for wind.

Unlike wind, however, the daily output from solar is relatively stable regardless of cloud cover, and hence it doesn't require backup from natural gas-fired plants as wind does. As well, solar is typically located close to markets, thereby avoiding transmissions costs and losses.

In its brief to the province, CanSIA recommends the province build its solar fleet to provide 5 per cent of the province's electricity needs by 2025. Currently, solar barely shows up it in the energy mix. But after a year of construction under current FIT contracts, it will be roughly 1.5 per cent of the province's peak 25,000 megawatts of peak capacity, or 375 megawatts.

To get there, the province will need to continue paying a premium for solar energy. However, CanSIA forecasts the cost per watt of installing solar panels will halve by 2020, and that solar power will become competitive with other sources of electricity by 2018. In the meantime, the industry will need the feed-in tariff to drive business, said David Cork, marketing vice-president with iSolara, one of the country's largest installers. Companies like iSolara have grown dramatically since the province first introduced its special tariff rates for renewable power in 2009, always with a promise that investments in the emerging technology will pay huge dividends for a clean-energy future.

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