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The Dark Ages

No Solar Power for You in Renewable Electricity Plan

by Miles Howe

Renewable Electricity Plan Eclipses Photovoltaics. Photo: SOHO
Renewable Electricity Plan Eclipses Photovoltaics. Photo: SOHO

In 1979, as Iranians tossed out American marionette Shah Reza Pahlavi, world oil prices spiked at an all-time high of $24 per barrel. There were shortages and line-ups at gas stations, and the precariousness of the oil-dependent system was laid bare, again, for all to see. Energy alternatives were sought out, or were at least discussed in relative earnest.

Here in Nova Scotia, in October of '79, the Department of Mines and Energy produced the contingency plan meant to ween the province off of unstable middle-eastern crude. Energy: A Plan for Nova Scotia, contained numerous suggestions and options (many of them coal-related, go figure!). The Plan contained all of one page on the potential of solar energy. This is the conclusion it drew:

Solar conditions in Nova Scotia are essentially no different from those in Southern Ontario...Solar energy will play a significant role in the future that can be brought closer through limited government intervention. The exploitation of passive solar, the promotion of active solar, and the monitoring of photovoltaics require further study.”

At the time, it was true. Worldwide, photovoltaic production in 1983 stood at 21.3 Megawatts. But the production of photovoltaic arrays has been doubling every two years since then, and we are now dealing with a far cheaper, far more effective technology. The application of technology, however, and it's introduction into the mainstream, is either helped or hindered by incentives to produce.

Ontario, with similar solar conditions, is estimated to have 2500 Megawatts of solar power developed by 2015. Ontario's Feed-In Tariff program, by which projects receive cash incentives to feed the grid, has experienced growing pains, but they are related to an over-abundance of applications to produce actual, renewable, energy. Germany, a world leader in solar power, but blessed with less sunshine than here in Nova Scotia, as of May 2011, had 18,000 Megawatts of solar PV energy.

Here in Nova Scotia, in 2010 this current NDP government released the “Renewable Electricity Plan” (REP), which aims to have Nova Scotia using 25% renewable electricity by 2015. It is an aggressive target, and should be the document that brings us into the light. 25% renewable energy certainly sounds promising...until one begins to understand the myriad follies of the REP.

In the bizarro-world of the REP, whole tree harvesting and burning is considered renewable. Existing hydro power from Quebec, arguably greener than black coal burning, is eschewed for multi-billion dollar, dam projects in Labrador, the cost and environmental impact of which are suspect (but also just happen to be Emera-funded projects). In the REP, tidal projects are offered massive rates of return, found nowhere else in the world, for unproven technology. And the wind component of the plan is marred by allegations of nepotism.

As for solar power? The one area where the urban Haligonian, not to mention their rural counterparts, might wrestle some small measure of control away from the Emeras and Nova Scotia Powers of the world, and feed the grid for pay? That's not yet for you, says the REP.

At this time, there is no solar COMFIT. Although solar technologies are technically feasible, they still come at a high cost that could significantly affect electricity rates if supported by a feed-in tariff. However, Government recognizes the current value and potential of solar energy and has included it as a qualifying renewable resource under the enhanced net metering program. In several years, the cost of solar technology will change and solar will likely have a larger role in the renewable energy mix.”

In several years we might be all submerged under rising sea levels. In several years we might be engaged in end-game strategies against Iran. In several years the CEOs (Chris Huskilson took home $3 million plus last year) and shareholders of Nova Scotia Power might be far richer too. And maybe therein lies the problem.

A Renewable Electricity Plan that actually provided an incentive for installing and using photovoltaic energy would involve sharing the profits of power generation with others. So while the notion of renewable energy is enticing, if breaking up the privately-owned power monopoly isn't part of the plan, then the REP just smells like it was written by a privately-owned power monopoly, or a government whose strings are getting pulled by a privately-owned power monopoly. There is no solar component to the REP. And that makes no sense.

“I think maybe their data was based on something they had from five or ten years ago, not the current data.” says Brian Rose, of Appleseed Energy. “I think that what happened was that in Nova Scotia it is not a good economic situation here for young businesses starting up in the solar industry. So you don't have a strong lobby.”

The ray of sunshine in all this is that the Renewable Energy Plan is up for review in 2012. If public interest can be captured, and a strong lobby group can be created, then the REP could theoretically be amended. Is there hope for a solar Feed-In Tariff in next year's review process? Rose certainly thinks so.

“We feel really strongly about empowering people in general, and the policy they have right now for renewable energy really pretty much leaves small businesses and individuals out of the whole picture. There's a giant market for people who want to secure their energy future. Any incentive would make it less expensive, and would just jump us ahead in time. It's coming. Anytime we hear that Nova Scotia Power is raising the rates, there's more people that are thinking “I'm helpless to this.” The way to become empowered in that situation is to produce all the electricity that you need. You can do that on an individual basis. You can do that as a small business.”

The phone number for the Nova Scotia Department of Energy is (902) 424-4575

Ask to speak to the Honourable Charlie Parker.


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Topics: Ideas
960 words


Some free advice

I'm an Ontario solar installer that works under the microFIT program. I can understand your frustration at not having a PV program, but let me assure you, no program is actually better than a bad program.

microFIT was originally intended to allow households or small commercial spaces add small amounts of PV and get paid for it. However, they didn't actually write the bill that way. Instead, they wrote it as "10 kWp or less", about 40 to 50 modern panels. So what happened?

We for one thing, it's less expensive to mount 50 panels in a block on a pole than it is to mount 20 on the roof of your house. So the profitability of the program was extremely skewed to large ground-mount systems. Of the 45,000 or so applications, something like 90 to 95% of them are 10 kW ground mounts. And most of those are out in the country, where the power they produce will burn off in the wires before it makes it to market.

So the government paniced. All such contracts were put on hold and the rate was hurredly lowered, post-facto. Everyone had a fit, projects died, and everything was crazy for a few months. But in the end, the vast majority of systems going in are still 50-panels on the top of a pole!

As if that weren't enough, on the residential side, large US companies with bags of cash appeared that would lease your roof and put up panels for free. They signed up thousands (litterally) of homeowners.

So the government paniced. They changed the application rules so you had to have a "natural person" owning the house. As a result, any small commercial property is no longer able to apply, even though they were a primary target of the initial law. Here in downtown Toronto, anyone that has a multi-use building with a store on the ground floor and apartments above is sunk.

So, my advice. My advice is to agitate for a system with these basic goals:

1) net metering. Under microFIT, you get paid for every watt, regardless if there's a load to sink it into. Bigger is better! Under net metering, you can only turn your meter back to zero. Oversizing your system is lost money.

2) Add a "bonus" on top. Under microFIT I have to install a second meter, which is a big PITA and adds about $2000 or more in paperwork and parts. You can buy a small system for about that. A better idea is to allow the user to decide if they want to bother with the metering. If they do, make sure it's "series connect" so you don't have to remove the existing meter!

3) make a real plug-n-play system for very small installs. Under microFIT we need to file about $3500 worth of paper with the municiple and provincial governments over a period of about 6 months before we can build. In certain parts of Europe, you can simply plug your system into any wall socket with no paperwork at all. The difference? For plug-n-play, the systems have to be small, roughly 8 panels or less. At that point it's less power than a in-window air conditioner, and I don't need paperwork for that.

4) set your limits and make sure everyone knows them. If you want, say, 5% of your power to come from small PV systems, then state that up front and figure out how much power that actually is. Now divide that amount of power into baskets, say 5 groups. For instance, if you want 500 MW of PV over the life of the program, divide that up into 5 groups of 100 MW each. Now decide what the "bonus payment" will be in each of these baskets. For instance, at the start of the program you might consider paying 30 cents a kWh on top of the net metering (which is totally reasonable, and still way less than what we pay in Ontario :-) so there's a real incentive to install. But as soon as the first 100 MW go in, the rate automatically falls, say to 20 cents. This way *everyone* knows up front what the program is going to cost in the long run, and the process for adjusting rates is much more transparent.

Thanks Maury

Thanks for the free advice Maury. I'll see that it gets passed along.


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