More Power to the People — Ontario Edition

It has been interesting watching the articles in the Globe&Mail about the problems with getting connected to the MicroFIT program — the backlog of applicants is apparently substantial. Meanwhile, the people who bought into the program, quite literally, are paying the substantial capital cost for their solar panels, out of their own pockets when they had expected the government to pay. I remember when this program was announced — Ontario Hydro would pay ‘small’ solar systems a breathtaking 0.80/kw, but this was later reduced to 0.56 due to an unexpected response. Meanwhile contractors and wannabes were inundating mailboxes across the province with tales of terrific profits to be had if they bought solar, financed it over 10 years or so with the expectation that electricity sales would cover the finance costs and produce an open-ended stream of revenue at the end. And these systems are not cheap — I have seen pricing into the low six figures, a pretty hefty bet to make on a politicians promise. [The weather is more stable and predictable… but I digress.]  Sort of like the fairy tales that the wind sales guys tell farmers when they are looking for places to put wind turbines — but that is another rant.

The joke is that the grid is nowhere near robust enough to support the direct connection of thousands of little solar generators, so Hydro has adopted a go slow approach. And the little solar installer companies that started up on the belief that there would be a cascade of business resulting from the MicroFIT program are wondering what happened and starting to lay off. So much for the vaunted ‘green’  jobs.

And I am curious as to how all this inflow power would be managed?  I am aware that the province has been madly building gas turbine generation stations to backfill for the variability of wind — which can go +-100% in a few minutes. These generators spin all the time, so whatever greenhouse gases were saved by the wind turbines gets made up for with the gas turbines. With solar I am not so sure what they are planning.  The alternate energy folks talk about charging batteries when more is produced than needed —  but with these direct grid connected systems its unclear. I don’t think they are very happy producing electricity on a nice sunny day and just disconnected, but I could be wrong. One thing is clear though, the MicroFIT owner is not supposed to help themselves to the power — there are two meters setup, one for the property inflow and another for electricity produced with no connections between them inside the meters. That way the usage can be monitored and billed at one interval and electricity production monitored and payed on a very different interval. I have heard once a year…

Meanwhile, residential and small business users are seeing a new ‘Ontario Clean Energy Rebate’ that offsets 10% of the bill every month until 2015.  What I have been reading in the press is that this ‘rebate’ is being financed by additional borrowing by the province so it will all have to be paid back with interest. If true this is a cynical move on the part of the politicians to bribe us with our own future money. I am not sure my grandchildren will be so grateful.

The odd part of all this is that without large scale energy storage and a quantum leap in grid management I am not sure that this new, modern smart grid will be anything more than a very overpriced third world electrical system.  Existing hydro sites only go so far to provide power. When the existing coal and oil plants are torn down and the anxiety set gets their way with nuclear there will be a small base load and a wildly variable bunch of ‘green’ supplies. And the gap will be filled, hopefully, by madly burning natural gas — which seems plentiful right now (but so did a lot of other North American resources until they weren’t).  And does nothing to offset global climate change — although I am sure the spin doctors can come up with some cute coverup. So I suspect that blackouts and brownouts will become more frequent.

One wonders what might have happened if the Province had taken a decentralized approach like the US. There, tax incentives encouraged people to put in their own power — so a personal investment to cover their own costs.  The brilliant part of all this is that the load on the grid is reduced, rather than increased, so investments in infrastructure are avoided. But I guess its hard for some folks to think about decentralized, resilient and independent solutions when autocratic central control is their personal style.

Update — This morning I was reading an article in the NationalPost about the experience of Texas with their wind plants.  Seems they built out 10,000mw of capacity and shutdown a bunch of coal and oil burning plants — but after a bunch of clearly wind fluctuation-related blackouts had to bring them back online, not a cheap exercise.  And despite the aggressive buildout of wind in Ontario, with a huge project planned to destroy yet another bird sanctuary island, Ontario has a net surplus of electricity and has been exporting it at subsidized rates.  The National Post suggested that this is costing Ontario taxpayers a billion dollars a year.  And still it goes on.  The article cited a study that projects by the time the wind/solar buildout is completed Ontario electric rates will have doubled and we would have the dubious distinction of being tied with Denmark as having the highest power rates in the world. Considering the role of cheap, reliable power in the economic prosperity of the province, one wonders what the all-in cost of having the highest power costs in the world will be.  But I guess that once politicians get an idea wedged in their tiny minds, any mention of reality just takes their attention off themselves.  Too bad about the millions of other people in the province who’s jobs will be lost and lives destroyed for this fantasy.

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