Uneven progress on renewable energy

The biggest story you probably didn’t pay much attention to this week was Ontario’s plan to let homeowners, farmers, companies—anybody really—sell renewable energy onto the provincial power grid. This development makes me wonder why the federal government isn’t getting behind the international push to carve out a much bigger place for renewables in the energy marketplace.

Install a solar system on your roof and, under the Ontario government’s proposal, you’ll get 80 cents per kilowatt hour for any electricity you can’t use, which is far more than the going rate for, say, nuclear or conventional hydro power. Farmers will be offered a premium too, though it’s not quite as lucrative, for power from manure, as will entrepreneurs who sell wind-farm electricity.

Is there any doubt this is the way to go, as Europe has shown and the U.S. is learning? In the Washington, Congress is looking at a proposal to give Washington the authority to make sure renewable energy can be sold onto major power grids, even if states don’t want to play ball. President Barack Obama will need that sort of clout to make good on this pledge to double renewable electricity by 2012.

While Ontario’s move might amount to a policy turning point, Ottawa’s passivity on this major policy front remains a puzzle. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s January budget failed, for example, to put any new money into Ottawa’s already oversubscribed program to subsidize new renewable power sources.

That means if you have a wind or solar project in mind, you’re out of luck. Earlier entrants into the renewable energy business are in line ahead of you for a taste of the $1.48-billion federal ecoEnergy for Renewable Power fund. There’s no more money going into the program as the renewable sector expands.

And this isn’t a case of the Conservatives letting a Liberal scheme they can’t claim ownership of shrivel: Harper unveiled this program with justifiable pride back in early 2007. Yet the Tories seem to have lost enthusiasm for it.

In Washington, it’s quite another story. Obama’s stimulus package allocates $76 billion for renewable energy and energy efficiency. The U.S. government already offers a tax credit of 30 per cent of the cost of installing new solar panels, wind turbines, and other renewable energy systems.

There’s nothing like it in Canada. For instance, the federal ecoENERGY Retrofit program, which sensibly pays grants to property owners who boost the energy efficiency of their homes, doesn’t cover home solar or wind generating systems. Surely if investing in a more efficient furnace or better ceiling insulation deserves a grant, so does buying the gear to generate your own clean power.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.