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Ontario solar rising amidst growing pains

The future of solar power in Ontario is bright following the implementation of the Green Energy Act (GEA) and Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) Program. The FIT Program, in particular, has had a positive impact on Ontario’s solar manufacturers, as well as indirectly affecting consumers of solar products (e.g. businesses, homeowners, etc.) and workers, especially electricians. But with every young industry comes growing pains, and solar is no exception. Below, EM investigates the opportunities and challenges available to the individuals most affected by Ontario’s new solar landscape.


July 7, 2010
By John Gilson


Topics

Consumers (i.e. business)
With the FIT and MicroFIT programs, businesses can make additional revenue by becoming power producers and installing solar panels on their rooftops.  The clean energy produced by the system is added back to the grid and the power producer is paid at a premium rate according to the feed-in-tariff schedule.

David Gower, associate director of the Ontario Solar Academy (OSA) likens PV panels to “having a mini-generating plant on your roof.” He added that, “Rooftops are considered prime real estate by the solar industry, with some companies offering to lease roof space.” Currently, the OSA is offering intensive training in solar PV.

The feed-in-tariff, according to the Government of Ontario has makes it easier for businesses to contract for solar energy generation, providing standardized program rules, prices and contracts. The program is divided into two streams: The standard FIT Program for renewable projects that can generate more than 10kW of electricity; and the MicroFIT Program for renewable projects that produce 10kW of electricity or less.

Both programs have proven very popular so far. In fact, with the current backlog in FIT applications one can say the program is too popular. According to the Ontario Power Authority (OPA), more than 15,000 applications for the MicroFIT Program have been made; however, approximately only 3,500 applications have been processed.

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Manufacturers
The provincial government is already dishing out investments to Ontario solar manufacturers. For example, Heliene Canada Inc. in Sault Ste. Marie will receive assistance from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (NOHFC) for establishing a fully automated solar panel manufacturing plant. Another manufacturer in “the Soo”, Morgan Solar Inc., has received $1.86 million from the government’s Innovation Demonstration Fund for the company’s new approach to capturing and concentrating sunlight.

With the FIT Program, opportunities for Ontario’s solar manufacturers will only get better. For example, under the MicroFIT and FIT programs a certain percentage of a solar installation’s labour and product (i.e. panels, inverters, wiring, etc.) have to come from Ontario. These requirements—which work more as a point system—currently stand at 40% for MicroFIT and 50% for FIT, but by 2011 the percentages will increase to 60% for both programs.

The one potential downside, according to David Gower, is a shortage of products. “The 2011 deadline for domestic content could make it difficult for consumers to find compliant products. The products could also become too expensive, resulting in a slowdown in the industry,” he said. However, Gower is also optimistic that the industry can work through this deadline.

Electricians and other skilled workers
If taken advantage of, electricians have a lot to gain through solar training. There will naturally be a growing demand for qualified workers, due in large part to increasing domestic requirements under the FIT Program and a growing solar market.

Currently, there is a major shortage of qualified individuals, as solar job training and other standards guiding the industry are very much in their infancy. Qualifications, regulations and codes governing PV installation remain largely undefined, leaving numerous opportunities for trained and untrained professionals alike.

As a result, quality control issues could threaten the industry. According to the OSA, unqualified workers have exploited this unregulated landscape, producing a potential consumer-relations nightmare for the solar industry. If left unchecked, such recklessness can soil the burgeoning solar industry, stunting its growth.

But the OSA says it is taking steps to solve this problem. While pressing for better regulation, the organization is also offering 5-day intensive training sessions for tradespeople wishing to take advantage of Ontario’s changing energy environment.

“We are offering 5-day intensive training sessions in an effort to provide professionals with a foundation in solar,” said Gower. “The course focuses on design and installation of PV systems. We also offer advanced training, design workshops and will be expanding our offering in the future.”

Despite the backlog and growing pains, solar power (and renewable power in general) seems like it’s here to stay in Ontario. Indeed, the possibility of making an additional income, combined with being more energy-independent, may be solar’s biggest draw.

For more information on the Ontario Solar Academy, go to www.solaracademy.ca.


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