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Nearly 30 per cent of respondents said they believe the overall cost of living will rise if Ontario uses more solar power.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's plan for a "cap-and-trade" system to help cut greenhouse gas emissions has strong public backing, a new poll suggests.

About two-thirds of people in the province support the government's move, according to the survey conducted for the Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSIA) by research firm Gandalf Group.

In April, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced that the province will implement a cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions, and the scheme will be linked with similar systems in Quebec and California. The government will issue permits to companies specifying how much carbon each can emit. Companies that want to emit more must buy permits from others that have used less than their allotment.

Ontario could raise as much as $2-billion a year from carbon-credit auctions, money the government says it will use for new environmental projects such as public transit.

Katie Sullivan, North America director for the International Emissions Trading Association, said it is crucial that governments intending to implement greenhouse gas mitigation mechanisms have strong public support before they go ahead – especially if they hope to get re-elected.

But it is also key that they get businesses on side, she said. Fortunately, cap-and-trade models tend to be relatively popular with industry because they are flexible enough to give companies choices as to how to comply. They also generally "allow the market to decide where the most economic greenhouse gas reductions will come from," rather than picking technology winners and losers, she said.

Having Ontario join California and Quebec will add liquidity to that carbon market, Ms. Sullivan said. But the details of Ontario's scheme have not yet been revealed and "there are still a lot of critical decisions on how the program is designed," she added.

Gandalf Group principal David Herle said the poll results reflect the fact that climate change has become a high priority for citizens. People don't always understand the technical details or the implications of the issue, he said, but there is a broad "desire to do something."

The survey, which asked Ontarians specifically about the solar industry in addition to questions about broader climate-change issues, showed that about three-quarters of respondents support the allocation of a "significant" amount of cap-and-trade revenue to solar-related technologies. But while the poll revealed broad public support for solar-generated electricity, it also showed that many people are concerned about solar's impact on the cost of power and the overall cost of living.

About 35 per cent of those who responded said they think residential electricity rates will be higher if the province increases the amount of solar power, and almost 30 per cent said the overall cost of living will rise if there is more solar.

"People are not certain about the reliability of [solar], they think it likely costs more than other forms of electricity and they worry that it will have a negative impact on the cost of living," Mr. Herle said. "They don't know if it is ready or not."

The solar industry has to deal with those perception issues, he said, and needs to get its message out that the costs of solar are coming down sharply. That will help the sector tap into the positive sentiment people have toward the clean technology industry, he said.

The solar industry also has an "offensive play" in emphasizing that it will help create a modern, successful economy down the road, Mr. Herle said. There are already some positive signs on that front, as respondents to the poll said they think clean technology will be more important to the Ontario economy over the next decade than retail, manufacturing or car assembly.

CanSIA's president John Gorman said he was "a bit frustrated" with the concerns expressed about the price of solar power and its impact on the cost of living. Consequently, "the message about rapidly declining costs of solar is an extremely important message for us to get out," he said. By the end of this summer, there will be about two gigawatts of solar power installed in the province, enough to power around half a million homes. Newer projects will be considerably less expensive and receive far less for their electricity than older ones, he added.

Going forward, the economic benefits of expanding the solar industry in Ontario will be "astronomical," Mr. Gorman said. And the "stars are aligning" for Alberta, he said, because of its sunny skies, its need to phase out coal-generated electricity and its new environmentally-friendly government.