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Pocketful of Sunshine?  

author: Tom Cruickshank

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Everyone’s keen on going green, but a new solar farm in Hamilton Township – and others like it in Watershed country – are a microcosm of all that’s wrong with Ontario’s renewable-energy strategy.

There they stand, here and there across Watershed country, row on row in what was only recently a farmer’s field: shiny, silvery panels glimmering in the noonday light. Aimed directly at the sun, their sole purpose is to absorb solar heat, convert it to electricity, feed the grid and ultimately light our homes and power our households. They do the same job as the Pickering and Darlington nuclear stations, but without the nagging worry over radioactive waste. They do the same as hydroelectric turbines, but without the massive impact on natural river systems. And likewise, they do the same as a coal- or natural gas-fired generating station, but unlike these, solar energy proudly boasts absolutely no emissions. Most of all, solar takes advantage of an unlimited resource, no small consideration in light of the political and ecological consequences of our current addiction to oil. In a world that is finally waking up to the dangers of climate change, solar power makes a lot of sense, especially when every other mode of energy seems to have an Achilles’ heel.

Until very recently, most solar installations in Ontario have been at the household level: a bank of photovoltaic panels on a rooftop or an array of two or three panels in a farmer’s field, the epitome of green living and self-sufficiency. But as the world begins to wean itself off fossil fuels, solar energy has graduated to something bigger: the “solar farm” – sparkling rows of south-facing panels as far as the eye can see. The panels – up to 50,000 of them in a single installation, each measuring two square metres – can easily cover 200 acres. They have the potential to produce 10 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 3,000 homes.

The transformation has been swift, but solar is now big business and poised as a serious contender as one of the green alternatives, along with wind-generated power. Today, it accounts for a mere 1.5 percent of world electricity production, but as its technical efficiency continues to improve and costs continue to drop, solar is gaining ground…and fast. In 2000, the International Energy Agency, a multi-national think tank based in France, predicted that worldwide solar capacity would quadruple by 2015. They were wrong: that milestone was already history in 2005. Nowadays, even the most conservative estimates suggest that solar will account for more than 20 percent by the mid-2020s. From there, the sky’s the limit. We only have to look back at the exponential growth of the automobile in the 1920s and the computer in the 1980s to find examples of other technologies that were so widely adopted so quickly.

Despite its northern latitude and cloudy winters, Ontario isn’t about to be left behind. Currently, there are dozens of corporate solar farms in operation or in the works throughout the southern reaches of the province. Here in Watershed country, you’ve probably seen some of them – there is an especially visible installation beside the 401 at the Wesleyville Road exit in Port Hope. Further east in Northumberland is a 200-acre project in Hamilton Township, while the Alderville First Nation, north of Cobourg, has a farm of its own. Meanwhile seven private, farm-sized solar projects have been approved by the Ontario government for Prince Edward and Hastings.

So what would you do if you learned that the property next to yours was about to become a solar farm?

You’d probably grin and bear it. You might wince at the thought of a farmer’s field full of solar equipment, but while the view may not be as pastoral as a herd of cows grazing in the pasture, heaven knows we all have to do our part for renewable energy. Besides, the panels make no noise; they produce no emissions or byproducts; they certainly aren’t as objectionable as whirling, skyscraping wind turbines. You could argue that they’re inefficient – they don’t work at night or on rainy days, of course – but isn’t that a small price to pay for truly green energy?

Don’t try to use this logic with Stu Henry, whose rural home is within sight of the new installation in Hamilton Township, which stands beside Payne Road, a short drive north-east of Cobourg. Like others of its kind, the extensive solar farm sprawls over former farmland and has arguably turned a rural idyll into an eyesore. But Stu’s beef against it isn’t what you might think. He has no objection to green power, and can probably live with the spoiled view from his window. “I doubt there are any Ontarians opposed to the greater use of green energy,” he says, but “I also believe that a comparable number of Ontarians – if they knew the real story – would be strongly opposed to the continued wasteful acquisition of such energy.”

Retired from a 50-year career in Bay Street finance, Stu brings an economist’s approach to the issue, and when he crunched the numbers, he was alarmed by what he learned. “Nothing adds up. It makes no economic sense. We (the taxpayers) will be paying for this – in the billions of dollars – for years to come.” Put it another way: if you want to know why your hydro bills are the highest in North America, just look out Stu’s window.

Ontario’s newfound interest in harvesting the sun is no accident. It has its origins in the Green Energy Act of 2009, the brainchild of then-Premier Dalton McGuinty’s government. As they watched the province’s traditional manufacturing base flee to China and Mexico, the reigning Liberals sought to fill the economic void by making Ontario a global leader in renewable energy. They argued, quite convincingly, that there are thousands of good-paying, high-tech jobs to be found in the design and manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels, to say nothing of the construction jobs they would create. Moreover, by being at the forefront of the coming green wave, Ontario could export its green products and expertise to other places eager to find alternatives to fossil fuels. The timing was perfect, especially in light of the government’s pledge to shut down its aging, dirty, coal-burning, power-generating facilities. It was a gamble, but the Green Energy Act won heaps of praise, including an endorsement by the David Suzuki Foundation. In 2011, it said, “the Act is one of the strongest pieces of environmental legislation in the country and has situated Ontario as a world leader in renewable energy.”

Despite its good intentions, the Act was dogged by problems and controversy. In 2013, the manufacturing component was dashed in one fell swoop when the World Trade Organization ruled against Ontario’s idea to give preferential favour to domestic manufacturers of wind and solar components, declaring it an improper subsidy. But the most contentious aspect of the Green Energy Act is something called the “feed-in-tariff,” which guarantees solar investors a remarkably high price for any electricity that they feed into the grid. A household producer with only a few panels in the back forty, was assured 80 cents per kilowatt-hour, while a commercial-sized solar farm – comparable to the Hamilton Township installation – earns about 44 cents. If this sounds like a lot of money, it is: about three-and-a-half times the going rate for solar power in the U.S., according to the Globe and Mail. What raises even more eyebrows is that the prices are guaranteed for 20 years.

But as an incentive to jump-start the green economy, the feed-in-tariff has been a resounding success. In fact, it is probably the single most important factor behind the wave of new solar farms popping up all over southern Ontario. No doubt, this explains why Philadelphia-based Penn Energy, heretofore a shopping mall developer that dabbled in energy projects with no significant interest in Canada, dove head-first into the Hamilton Township site.

As soon as Penn Energy announced its plan in 2010, the neighbours rallied. Stu hosted a couple of impromptu meetings to help construct a strategy to fight it.

“For all its green attributes, industrial-sized solar gobbles up a lot of real estate,” observes Shirley Richardson, who lives nearby and attended several meetings. From her front yard beside her century-old stone house, she can see a corner of the new solar farm on the acreage next door. Walk up the hill to her back forty and the sheer enormity of the installation is undeniable. “Not only is it ugly to look at, I have to wonder about the loss of agricultural land,” she says, referring to the alarming rate at which rural land is being paved over for subdivisions, shopping malls, highways, and yes, even solar farms. The Hamilton Township site was stripped bare of topsoil and can probably never again be farmed. Scores of trees were cut down, and since construction began, the site has been plagued with drainage and erosion problems. Meanwhile, the panels are mounted on concrete bases that are permanent. Someday, when and if the solar farm has outlived its usefulness, it would take a herculean effort to rehabilitate it. “Is this what the countryside is supposed to be?” Shirley asks.

Early on, the neighbourhood opposition realized it faced an uphill battle. “Yes, this was NIMBYism,” Shirley admits. It was heartfelt and earnest – after all, who wants their perfect rural views spoiled by an industrial installation? – but not something on which to build a legal case. They considered recruiting a lawyer, but were told that it was difficult to use aesthetic matters as an argument against a development proposal. Moreover, “the legal fees would have been staggering, especially since the fight could drag on for years.” Even the argument over the loss of agricultural land seemed to carry little weight. While the Green Energy Act forbids solar farms on the best soils, the Hamilton site was several notches below prime, suited to pasture but not much else. All told, there was very little standing in Penn Energy’s way.

Discouraged, the neighbours’ protest didn’t really get off the ground, but truth to tell, it never stood a chance in the first place. In fact, its greatest obstacle was the Green Energy Act itself, which allows approval of wind and solar proposals with very little consultation with neighbouring landowners and other affected parties. It can even act without the approval of the local municipality, which usually has the last word in land-use decisions. “It’s very undemocratic when provincial legislation can trump a municipality,” says Donna Cole, who sat on Hamilton Township council at the time. Already concerned about health issues related to wind turbines (which is a whole other story), the solar farm proposal was the last straw. Donna led a motion that Hamilton join adjacent Alnwick/Haldimand and dozens of other rural Ontario municipalities and declare itself an “unwilling host” to future industrial-sized green energy projects. It passed unanimously.

Despite neighbourhood objections…despite the loss of farmland…despite a lack of support from council…the province granted approval in 2011 and the Hamilton Township solar farm has been cranking out the megawatts for over a year now. But that doesn’t mean the controversy has died down. Always with an eye on the numbers, Stu remained suspicious about Ontario’s green energy plan. So was the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Sun and the Toronto Star, not to mention the province’s own auditor-general, Bonnie Lysyk. Late last year, the media was abuzz when she revealed that Ontarians had paid $9.2 billion for renewable electricity in recent years, an extraordinary sum due, in part, to the inflated prices paid to green-energy producers. Seemed like a lot of money to pay for infrastructure that only accounts for barely one percent of Ontario’s electrical production. “It’s just not sustainable,” Stu observes.

But that’s only part of the story. The trouble with our energy utility goes far beyond its green energy efforts. The auditor-general said that electricity in Ontario is a grossly mismanaged resource: infrastructure has been neglected, management decisions have been politicized, the utility operates without an apparent business plan, new ventures (including the green strategy) have been implemented at great cost with little benefit.

This has resulted in a sharp and sudden increase in hydro bills. At peak hours, electricity now costs the consumer 17.5 cents per kilowatt-hour; in 2011, it was being billed at 10.7 cents. This writer, who keeps track of the day-to-day expenses at his Hamilton Township farmhouse, compared his December 2015 bill to that from December 2011: the household used roughly the same amount of power in both months, but the more recent charge was $225, compared to $152 four years ago. But don’t take his word for it – anyone who pays a monthly hydro bill has a similar story. In all, the Globe estimates that every year, the average household pays about $1,188 more than it should for electricity.

Add it all up and Ms. Lysyk’s report says we paid a whopping $37 billion above market price for power in the years between 2006 and 2014 and we will continue to pay dearly as the next decade unfolds to the tune of $133 billion.

Say that again?

It’s a staggering sum, almost beyond comprehension, but that’s the dire state of Ontario’s electricity utility today. “We now have the most expensive electricity in North America,” Stu says, pausing for emphasis. This goes way beyond being a burden to the household budget. “Imagine – this could be the final blow to our manufacturing sector. And just think of how this adds to the already-crippling Ontario debt.”

The ironic thing is that Ontario doesn’t need the green energy it produces. “In fact, it’s surplus, which sometimes sells for less than one cent per kilowatt-hour,” Stu says, looking at statistics provided by the Independent Electricity System Operator (www.ieso.com), the board that monitors the grid and electricity pricing in Ontario. Indeed, IESO figures show that existing nuclear, gas and hydro installations already generate enough power to meet our daily needs, even at peak times. Moreover, Stu has learned that in recent years, demand has been flat – thanks to conservation – so there is no urgency to expand production, green or not. “If the need arises, the greenest thing the government can do is simply buy electricity from Quebec,” whose existing hydroelectric infrastructure is not working nearly at capacity.

This is sobering stuff and makes you shake your head and wonder where Ontario really ranks as the world advances toward solar and other types of renewable energy. Was the Green Energy Act simply a good idea that was poorly executed? Just an opportunity for the province to boast it was on the leading edge of green power? At the very least, it gives pause to anyone who lives near a solar farm.

It seems Bob and Shirley Richardson are paying not only a personal price but an unnecessary price. As Shirley walks her property with her golden retriever, she still loves country life. “Not even a solar farm can ruin it,” she says. But sometimes you wonder if she feels under siege. From her hilltop view over Lake Ontario, you can also see the Findlay gravel quarry; the TransCanada pipeline runs across her land, and there are plans for another; the drone of the 401 is sometimes in the air. And now a solar farm. You can’t blame her if she thinks country living ain’t what it used to be.

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