A solar plan overheats

Ontario admits that its much-hyped energy project was broken and would have cost taxpayers $1 billion

In Ontario, a plan to subsidize homeowners’ solar panels has been too popular. Earlier this month, admitting participation has “vastly surpassed expectations,” the Ontario Power Authority cut the price it pays for power generated from ground-based solar panels. Through the microFIT Program, it had been offering 80.2 cents per kilowatt hour over a 20-year period—about 20 times the going rate for power. Now, under a proposed adjustment, ground-mounted projects of 10 kilowatts or less would get 58.8 cents per kilowatt hour.

High rates were offered to get homeowners on board. But to no one’s surprise (but the government’s, it seems), businesses leapt at the chance, too, leasing farmland and “stacking up 10-kilowatt ground-based arrays every couple acres,” says Joshua Pearce, assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering at Queen’s University. Farmers who installed solar systems on their fields in some cases earned a tidy profit. Since the program was announced, the cost of solar panels “dropped radically,” falling at least 40 per cent in the past year, Pearce adds, making it even more attractive to speculators.

Since October, the program has received 16,000 applications—the vast majority for ground-based arrays, which “swamped the program,” said Brad Duguid, energy and infrastructure minister. At the current rate, he said, the program would have cost taxpayers more than $1 billion over the next 20 years. Among those most penalized by the about-face will be the farmers who invested tens of thousands in solar systems, expecting to receive the advertised rates of the original plan. (Those who’ve already received a contract offer from the OPA for a ground-based system will be eligible for the original rate, as will all rooftop projects.)

Observers say the plan has been badly bungled. Pearce blames the province for moving too slowly, noting that even the current amendment is now undergoing a 30-day public consultation period before being enacted. If Ontario intends to be a major player in the solar power industry, it will need to give companies assurances it can change with the times, he notes—not shut them down just as the industry is set to boom.