by BETTER FARMING STAFF
There was a time Russell Elliott thought becoming involved in Ontario’s micro feed-in tariff program was a great opportunity to invest some savings.
That was before the cash crop farmer, who lives between Strathroy and Parkhill, learned it could take years to obtain a connection to the power grid.
Elliott had done everything by the book.
In April 2010, he applied to the program that offers small-scale power developers an opportunity to sell green power to Ontario’s power grid. By December, he had received a conditional offer to buy power from the Ontario Power Authority, which administers the program, installed a ground-mounted solar tracking unit and obtained — as the OPA required —Electrical Safety Authority approval.
Then he discovered his distribution company, Hydro One Network Inc., didn’t have the capacity to hook up his project.
“There’s a lot of frustration in this whole thing,” he says. “We’ve done exactly as we were supposed to; the government presented us with a program; we went ahead and did it.”
About five per cent of all microFIT program projects are stalled because the local infrastructure capacity can’t accommodate them. In February, Brad Dugout, Ontario’s Minister of the Environment, responded by fast tracking three Hydro One transmission projects in southwestern Ontario and upgrading the distribution company’s transmission stations.
Elliott asked Lambton-Kent-Middlesex MPP Maria Van Bommel to look into the issue. In early June, he received an email response from Helen Kwan, a senior project advisor with the ministry. That’s when he discovered it would take Hydro One 48 months to do the upgrades it had begun in March.
Elliott has obtained a year extension for his conditional offer, which otherwise would have expired in August. “But nobody has said they would go beyond that,” he says. “What’s going to happen the other three years?”
Mary Bernard, a spokesperson with the OPA, says there’s no policy decision yet for those in Elliott’s situation. “We don’t want to put additional hardship on folks who have followed all the rules and not been able to connect immediately.”
On Thursday, Elliott was among eight microFIT participants and solar contractors who met with members of Warwick Township council in Lambton County to discuss options and share their plight to local media.
Not knowing where Hydro One’s upgrades were taking place or when they would be complete was one of the group’s main concerns. How to obtain relief for project owners stuck in limbo during the interim was another.
“A timetable we can deal with,” says Dean Kulich, who represents Fritz Renewable Energy Services in Chepstow. “That way you can talk to your lenders.”
He says his company had to tear down 95 units because of delays and concerns they would not meet the province’s new domestic content requirement. (In January, the province raised its domestic content requirement in solar units to 60 per cent from 40 per cent). Kulich says he has another 317 potential customers dealing with constraints on their lines. His company is making interest payments for affected customers to compensate for the delay.
“The word class action has been mentioned everywhere,” he says. “We’re staying neutral.”
Frank Hogervorst, a sales representative with Penner Farm Services in Granton, says some people used retirement money to pay for the projects, thinking it would generate income, and now can’t connect. “It’s like a mutual fund gone bad.”
His company is giving customers an interest credit to help them cover their costs. He suggests the province should allow those who are affected to transfer their approvals to areas where there are no problems with capacity.
Todd Case, Warwick’s mayor, says representatives from the ministry, the OPA and Hydro One declined invitations to join the meeting.
Case has requested a meeting with Agriculture Carol Mitchell to discuss the issue. “As a municipality we are going to continue asking the questions,” he says.
With an election looming, Elliott expressed a desire to act quickly to find a solution. “The only bargaining chip we have now is the Liberal government,” he says.
On Thursday, the OPA announced that those who submitted their application before October 8, 2010 would be allowed to use the lower domestic content requirements of 40 per cent.
As of the end of May, the OPA had received 30,168 applications for the program. It had terminated 3,049, issued 21,255 conditional offers and had 5,093 projects executed.
Applications are terminated if they are incomplete, don’t meet eligibility requirements or are withdrawn by the applicant, says Bernard. “We know from our conversations with Hydro One and other LDCs (local distribution companies) that there’s a large number of people who are sitting on conditional offers who have not yet applied for a connection.”
A spokesperson for Hydro One could not be immediately reached for comment. BF