Etrion Corp., a solar energy developer partly owned by the Lundin mining conglomerate, plans to add Canada to its global network within a couple of years.
The company, which trades on the TSX and the Stockholm exchange but is headquartered in Switzerland, has solar installations in Italy, Japan and Chile. But it wants to expand dramatically, particularly in the Americas, said chief executive officer Marco Northland, and Canada will be part of that growth.
"My dream would be to have something concrete developing in Canada by the end of next year, and then to be in a position where we are actually building [a project] in 2016," Mr. Northland said in an interview during a trip to Toronto.
Etrion was created as a renewable-energy venture by the Lundin Group, which owns mining assets around the world, including Toronto-based Lundin Mining Corp. and Denison Mines Corp. Etrion went public through a reverse takeover of a TSX-listed company in 2009, and Lundin currently owns about one quarter of the shares.
Etrion's first projects were in Italy, where it has developed 17 small, ground-mount solar operations. Total production is 60 megawatts, sold under fixed-price 20-year contracts.
It then shifted its sights to Chile, where solar radiation is strong, energy is expensive and solar installations can compete without subsidies. Just this month it finished construction of a 70-MW solar farm, the second largest in the country, and it has another 100 MW planned.
In Japan, where its partner is a subsidiary of Hitachi, Etrion is building two solar farms that will generate about 34 MW of power when completed.
Those three countries are all net importers of energy and power is expensive, Mr. Northland said, and thus solar is a crucial component of the electricity mix and investment returns are high.
But as the cost of solar equipment continues to decline, more and more regions of the world will reach "grid parity," where solar power can compete without subsidies, he said.
Canada is not there yet, he notes, because our solar radiation isn't great and energy prices are relatively low. So there will have to be government support for the solar industry until solar-panel prices fall even farther. In the meantime, what's crucial to keep the solar sector healthy, he said, is having consistent, long-term policies in place so companies can plan their projects with confidence.
He supports Ontario's energy program, which subsidizes renewable power projects through contracts that pay relatively high prices for green power. That will result in the creation of industry expertise, as well as an effective regulatory and permitting framework, he said. "As the technology becomes more efficient, then you have the infrastructure there to support the growth."
While all of Etrion's projects so far have been connected directly to power grids, the company also wants to develop a niche market in solar systems that supply electricity to remote mine sites that are off the grid. At those sites, power is often produced by expensive diesel generators, and solar – perhaps combined with storage systems – could be competitive, Mr. Northland said.
Etrion is considering opening an office in Canada to focus on the mining sector, an area where Lundin's expertise could be very helpful, he said.
With Etrion's portfolio of solar production sites expected to reach about 240 megawatts in the next year or so, the company says it will consider paying a dividend. But that's likely at least a year off, as profits are still thin. In the third quarter of 2014, the company generated net income of just $1.2-million (U.S.) on revenue of $17.1-million.
Analyst John McIlveen of Jacob Securities Inc. cut his rating on the stock from a "buy" to a "hold" after those results were released, noting that there is uncertainty over the spot power price Etrion will get in Chile, and that Italy recently decided to trim the high "feed in tariff" it pays for solar power.