By Jacob Travis
Leaving a Sustainable Solar Footprint in Ontario
In any international search for potential solar energy hotspots, Ontario would not likely appear at the top of most lists. With portions of the province subjected to subarctic temperatures, Ontario has historically been the realm of fur-traders and winter sports enthusiasts. And yet, this northern outpost of the continent is quickly gaining ground as a global solar mecca.
To be fair, Ontario is no stranger to renewable energy. The province derives more than 27% of its energy from hydroelectric power. Even still, other parts of North American are arguably better suited for the solar expansion currently unfolding in Ontario.
To understand how such an unlikely province could rise to the forefront of the solar game, one must start with the Green Energy Act--a historic piece of renewable energy legislation signed into law in 2009.
The Green Energy Act
Michael Eckhart, President of the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), once heralded Ontario¡¯s Green Energy Act and supporting legislation as ¡°the most comprehensive renewable energy policy entered anywhere in the world.¡± Modeled after similar renewable energy and green job bills in Europe, Ontario¡¯s Act was designed to:
-Create 50,000 direct and indirect green jobs over the next three years, with some estimates pushing the number of green-collar jobs closer to 90,000
-Introduce 25,000 MW of new renewable energy capacity (solar, wind, biogas, and biomass) by 2025
-Erect stricter environmental protections to safeguard Ontario¡¯s delicate ecosystems
-Offer incentives, like the Feed-in Tariff (FiT) program, to encourage widespread adoption of renewable energy technologies
-Implement price stability for energy created from sustainable sources
The FiT and microFIT programs, launched in October 2009, offer subsidized rates to renewable energy projects generating clean electricity from solar, water, wind, and biomass sources. These two incentives are part of a larger plan to decommission Ontario¡¯s coal-fired plants by 2014 and expand the province¡¯s transmission system.
On the heels of the Green Energy Act, Ontario quickly became a magnet for investment and manufacturing as solar stakeholders around the world rushed to establish a presence in the region.
Much of this interest stems from the domestic content requirements in the Act, which mandate that a percentage of all parts and labor for renewable projects be locally sourced if they are to qualify for feed-in tariff and other government incentives--a maneuver that has as much to do with promoting green energy as it does with rebuilding a manufacturing industry hard hit by overseas competition and the current economic decline. Accounting for more than half of Canada¡¯s manufacturing capacity, Ontario has been one of the recession¡¯s most notable victims ever since its biggest trading partner, Michigan, began scaling down auto production.
In essence, in order to compete in Ontario, one must physically ¡°be¡± in Ontario--a fact not lost on Korean firm, Samsung, as it invests US$7 billion to expand its renewable energy manufacturing and production capacity in the province.
Nearly a year after its signing, the Green Energy Act has, by most accounts, been a resounding success. In 2010 alone, Ontario has announced over 694 separate renewable energy projects approved by government agencies. Representing nearly US$9 billion in investment, these projects could directly create over 20,000 green jobs, not to mention countless ancillary employment opportunities in other sectors.
However, despite this impressive progress, lack of manpower has created a substantial bottleneck in Ontario¡¯s solar energy growth. A 2009 survey conducted by the Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSIA) shows that over 40% of solar companies in Canada were experiencing labor shortages, with an additional 10% believing they could face similar labor imbalances by 2012. Of those currently experiencing shortages, installation skills accounted for 78% of unmet demand, followed closely by system design, project management, and engineering.
These figures predate the Green Energy Act and the slew of solar energy projects currently in the pipeline. If CanSIA were to repeat its survey right now, it is likely that the labor supply-demand disequilibrium would be even more acute.
It seems odd that labor shortages could exist during one of the worst economic crises of the last few generations. People need jobs, and according to CanSIA¡¯s exhaustive survey, Canadian solar companies need more people. And yet, this imbalance exists nonetheless--largely because the types of professionals that solar firms seek typically require intensive training in system design and installation.
It was against this backdrop of immense solar potential hindered by insufficient manpower that we launched Ontario Solar Academy.
Ontario Solar Academy
Even before the Green Energy Act, there existed training opportunities spread throughout the province. However, many of these schools were marketing arms of distributors and manufacturers, meaning that their core business was not the actual training itself.
More important, the guidelines, codes, and equipment these training programs used were often imported from places like the U.S. or Germany. This practice was more than adequate in the days prior to the Green Energy Act, but such hand-me-downs became increasingly untenable as Ontario¡¯s solar industry came into its own. The U.S. National Electric Code (NEC), for example, is ill suited for a market that progressively relies on technology manufactured and sold in Ontario. And the learning objectives outlined by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP)--the organization responsible for certifying professionals in the field--needed to be interpreted in such a way that they reflect opportunities and applications specific to Canada.
For Ontario to realize its full solar potential, there needed to be an independent training program exclusively focused on the provincial market. We launched Ontario Solar Academy expressly for that purpose.
Over 5 days of intensive training, our students learn PV design and installation, using the very equipment and codes they will use professionally in the field. We¡¯ve been fortunate that solar technology firms like Conergy, S-5!, and Schneider Electric have been so accommodating, allowing our students to train with their equipment. Made in Ontario, the components and tools they send allow our students to practice installations under realistic conditions. ¡°Made in China¡± and ¡°Made in the U.S.¡± are not labels conducive to success under Ontario¡¯s domestic content requirements.
Equally important are the safety standards we emphasize during all of our courses. Solar PV installations can be extremely dangerous in the absence of proper training. At 600 volts (DC) plus a high potential for failure if hastily installed, photovoltaic technology is no laughing matter. This is why our students follow the Canadian Electric Code (CEC) during both the theoretical and hands-on PV installation workshops that we lead. This is also why we invite guest speakers from organizations like Ontario¡¯s Electrical Safety Authority to explain some of the key precautions one must follow when installing PV systems.
To import guidelines, technology, or guest speakers from abroad would deprive our students of the Ontario-specific education necessary to bridge the gap between qualified professionals and rising demand for solar installations. Whether they are studying grid-tied PV system design or learning about customer site evaluation, it is vital that our students understand the various safety, financial, and regulatory considerations germane to Ontario.
Since launching in February, 2010, we have graduated well over 100 solar professionals. In a province benefiting from billions in renewable energy investment, 100 solar graduates seems like a drop in the bucket, but the progress is very tangible. Wil Beardmore and Jeff Ross, two students from our inaugural class, are illustrative of the ripple effect that small numbers can have.
Models of Solar Success
Using their engineering training and years of military and corporate experience, Wil and Jeff launched Bluewater Energy to ¡°design, market, and install advanced renewable electricity generation systems¡± throughout the province.
Neither the Green Energy Act nor its FiT incentives existed when they created Bluewater Energy. In fact, Ontario¡¯s solar infrastructure was so underdeveloped that when Wil and Jeff visited a CanSIA conference in December of 2009, American attendees almost outnumbered Canadians.
Once the FiT and microFIT programs launched, Bluewater Energy expanded its mandate to facilitating the ¡°approval of applications and financing for residential and commercial¡± renewable energy systems in Ontario. However, not entirely familiar with the legislation and newly established codes, they actively sought training to augment their understanding of the key regulatory and financing issues affecting solar development. When they came across our course outline and learned that NABCEP-certified instructor, Sean White, would be leading the PV training classes, they signed up.
After graduating from the course, they felt more confident in their ability to educate clients about the benefits of going solar and the exact processes for installing, financing, and maintaining their systems under the new guidelines. Supplementing this education with additional workshops in solar PV and regulatory issues, they became ¡°subject matter experts,¡± committed to processing as many FiT applications as possible before the incentive program comes under review in October 2011.
Four months after going through their Ontario Solar Academy training, Wil and Jeff have helped prepare over 1 MW of microFIT applications pending conditional approvals, plus enough work lined up to keep them busy through 2011. In addition, they have established long-term relationships with Ontario-based suppliers like Schco Canada, Station Earth, and Bellamy Electric, thus, indirectly extending the range and scope of new solar opportunities and green jobs far beyond the confines of Bluewater Energy.
Wil and Jeff are just two people, and yet, their influence has proven invaluable to Ontario¡¯s solar push. When you factor in the other 100 plus graduates from our program, whether they were recent college grads, retirees, or experienced electrical engineers, the potential impact of our solar footprint grows exponentially.
Ontario Solar Network--Growing the Solar Footprint
Although our students consistently graduate into a market eager for their newly acquired skills, Ontario¡¯s solar industry is still very fragmented, making it difficult for even the most seasoned energy veterans to navigate the territory effectively. This lack of cohesion doesn¡¯t stem from a dearth of opportunities--quite the opposite in fact. With hundreds of renewable energy projects, billions in investment, and countless solar companies clamoring for more talent, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the options out there. We launched Ontario Solar Network to help change that.
Originally designed as the professional networking arm of our training program, we soon discovered that Ontario Solar Network held tremendous value for solar multinationals like Belgium-based Enfinity and industry novices, in addition to our growing alumni community. We frequently received questions from homeowners, installers, and business owners about everything from zoning laws and feed-in tariffs to solar certification and green job opportunities. And thus, we expanded Ontario Solar Network¡¯s membership, inviting all stakeholders within the province who are committed to a more sustainable future powered by the sun.
To give you an idea of what this expanded focus entails, we recently hosted an open forum during which farmers and other rural power producers met to discuss some of the key challenges and opportunities under the province¡¯s feed-in tariffs. Such incentives have historically attracted the most interest from residential and commercial power producers, but farms are enterprises ideally suited for such governmental grants. Not only are farmers accustomed to making substantial investments in equipment and technology, but as entrepreneurs, they also constantly seek new ways to minimize costs and augment their margins.
Going solar simply makes sense for this target market, and yet, we discovered that many farmers in the province had more questions than answers regarding the Green Energy Act. The interest was very much there, and the potential was huge. Solar companies began bombarding the farming community, exaggerating the ROI and heavily promoting a variety of competing technologies. The result was widespread confusion. By inviting several guest speakers well versed in Ontario¡¯s solar market, we designed the forum as an opportunity to dispel myths and answer questions about the microFIT and FiT programs. 200 attendees interacted with the panelists and 16 exhibiting solar companies.
During previous Ontario Solar Network meetings, we covered everything from electrical safety to domestic content issues. Our two summer events are focused on solar financing and legal matters, including rooftop leases. These networking events not only inform participants of the myriad solar options out there, but they also alert us to some of the disconnects that exist within the wider solar energy industry. There is a lot of information out there, but navigating the rapidly changing landscape has been a real challenge. In launching Ontario Solar Network, our goal is to bring cohesion to an industry whose rapid growth makes unification difficult.
Ontario¡¯s Huge Solar Potential
Ontario doesn¡¯t enjoy an exclusive monopoly on solar excellence, nor should one ever expect it to. Despite the job creation and lucrative business opportunities, the bottom line is about global sustainability. Any regional competition that arises is ultimately win-win for everyone, and we are fortunate that countries like Germany and the U.S. have set the bar so high. Doing so provides models for Ontario Solar Academy, Ontario Solar Network, and the Green Energy Act, all of which were created in the past thirteen months.
That being said, I am very proud of the progress Ontario has made over the past year. The province¡¯s renewable energy legislation and friendly business climate have helped lay the groundwork for continued growth in solar development. We hope to build upon past successes as we launch Solar Academy International and Solar Network International to tackle new markets and challenges outside of the Ontario region.
Jacob Travis is Director of Solar Academy International (www.solaracademy.ca). Travis has been a solar entrepreneur and advocate since 2008, running PV training classes, networking events, and non-profits within renewable energy.
* Austin Brentley contributed to this article.
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