The Canada Solar Power Boom

Like the rest of North America, Canada is in photovoltaic bloom. So why is electricity generated from its solar panels declining?

The news has been good. Last year, Canadian Solar’s stock skyrocketed nearly 700 percent as it built solar farms abroad and at home in Ontario, where it still has over 300 megawatts worth of projects on tap. Nationwide, feed-in-tariffs and growing support have subsidized and exponentially accelerated Canada’s solar installations. Perhaps not as fast as possible to fulfill Canada’s photovoltaic potential, but it seems to be on a roll.

But scan the government’s Statistics Canada site and you’ll find that last year electricity generated from solar declined a substantial 7.6 percent over 2012. Total generation from utilities and industry increased 2.7 percent in the same period, and that doesn’t compute, argued Bill Eggerston, executive director of Canadian Association for Renewable Energies (CARE).

“Energy is a provincial jurisdiction, so the feds claim it’s not their job to compile data,” he told SolarEnergy. But “it would be impossible to increase solar capacity to the extent claimed by governments, and experience that level of decline in generation,” Eggerston noted. CARE also noted that, of the provinces that reported photovoltaic generation data, only Ontario showed up.

“While we can’t necessarily speak to trends across Canada, Ontario is a leader in solar PV development,” Ministry of Energy spokesperson Beckie Codd-Downey told SolarEnergy. “Today, Ontario has the most solar PV capacity of any jurisdiction in Canada with over 900 MW online — expected to produce enough electricity to power more than 100,000 homes each year. Since Ontario’s FIT and microFIT programs were launched in 2009, Ontario has seen a reduction in the average costs for new solar PV systems of at least 40 percent.”

Again, it all reads like an unending stream of good solar news. If only the entire nation was as enthusiastic as Ontario, said Eggerston. “Energy, electric and thermal, is the basis of Canada’s economy, and governments are having trouble understanding the need for more sustainability and lower carbon.”

And even Ontario, Canada’s seemingly lone solar heavyweight, feels somewhat light on its love for solar. The official site for Ontario’s electricity system lists solar after nuclear, so-called natural gas, hydro and wind, before moving onto obsolete generators like coal, which it plans to kill this year.

“Centralized engineers prefer nuclear and hydro because they are dispatchable,” Eggerston explained. “They are both lower-carbon than coal, but Ontario is still promoting natural gas as a power source. Until voters reduce their own demand for electricity, the responsibility of public utilities and government is to meet that demand.”

For its part, the increasingly solarized Ontario last year released its long-term energy plan, called Achieving Balance, which “aims to balance the following five principles: cost-effectiveness, reliability, clean energy, community engagement and an emphasis on conservation and demand management before building new generation,” said Codd-Downey.

“This is why Ontario is currently developing a new large renewable procurement process for projects over 500 kW, through which the province plans to procure up to 140 MW of solar PV capacity in both 2014 and 2015,” she added. “The province has also set a target of 800 MW of new capacity to be procured through the FIT and microFIT programs in the years 2014-2017. These programs typically include a high proportion of solar PV projects.”

Yet despite those sunny ambitions, Canada’s overall energy balance seems to still be swinging in favor of last century’s dirty fuels, even as a planetary crisis of global warming crashes down. Even with Ontario’s statistics in the national mix, Canada — again, like the rest of North America, to be fair — is moving way too slow given the quickening pace of climate change’s catastrophic extremes. With a political base located in Alberta and a tar sands bonanza on the doorstep, Canada is yet another superpower in search of a substantial green effort.

“The federal government does not believe in climate change, so its position on solar and other emerging renewables is understandable,” Eggerston concluded. “There is a dearth of political support because most people do not understand renewables. Until we valorize carbon, remove the exemption to nuclear liability and price tar sands to the cost of extraction, including ecological damage, we don’t know what the economics are.”

This article appeared at Solar Energy