The golf ball and the garden hose

A friend of mine once got a terrific deal on a queen-size bed. Prior to that, he’d only ever lived in tiny apartments with barely enough room for a cot. He measured the bedroom in his new digs and there was enough space for a queen, as well a dresser and shelving unit and other furnishings. He could barely contain his excitement. He hurried off to Sleep Country to make a deal. And a deal he got. Almost.

When he got the bed home, he discovered that there was no possible way the box spring could fit up the stairwell.

He tried turning it this way. He tried turning it that way. He checked to see if it could be hoisted in through the bedroom window. Nothing would work.

In the end, in utter frustration, he took a sawzall and cut the thing in half. Fuming all the while, he manhandled the two pieces up the stairs and nailed them back together with some scrap lumber. The bed looked awful. He put a skirt around the bottom and did his best to pretty it up, but it never did look like it had in the store.

Some folks have had the same experience with solar energy.

An article in the August 11 issue of the Globe and Mail tells the story of two such cases, and indicates that there are thousands more. The article states that the Ontario Power Authority gave these thousands of applicants something called a “Conditional Offer of a microFIT Contract”. Then Hydro One issued letters indicating that the systems could not be connected due to capacity constraints.

Problem is, the people profiled in the article assumed that the OPA offer constituted a green light, so they went ahead and installed their systems. Now their solar-produced electricity is all dressed up with no place to go.

Who’s to blame?

The applicants blame Hydro One. And they have a point. How many people really understand the relationship between the various entities formerly known as Ontario Hydro? Of course OPA and Hydro One have different responsibilities and therefore have to make go/no-go decisions independently of one another. But why do they each have to send their own independent letter to the applicant? The OPA letter is a red herring. It makes no difference that OPA is willing to buy your electricity if Hydro One then refuses to connect you.

In part, Hydro One blames the applicants. They claim that the application process is clearly laid out on the Hydro One website. That is true. There’s also a lot of CYA wording as well. The site warns that Hydro One may or may not make an Offer to Connect. The document describing the application process is equally explicit. One does wonder why a person making an investment of tens of thousands of dollars would not bother to read the fine print. You can’t buy a penny’s worth of mutual funds without clicking through pages of legalese acknowledging that past returns are not an indication of future returns yadda yadda yadda. If you don’t read the prospectus, that’s your tough luck, as any stockbroker will tell you. Why should solar energy be exempt from caveat emptor?

Hydro One also blames the grid. It was designed assuming that the electricity would be produced somewhere far away. The transmission wires get smaller and smaller as they near their destination. Most microFIT applicants are not urbanites sticking a few panels on the roof, but rather farmers installing a large array in an unused corner of the back forty. By the time the transmission wires reach some of these isolated farmhouses, they can only carry enough juice to power a few homes tops.  Hydro One claims the lines aren’t big enough to handle the load of a miniature power plant. To paraphrase, trying to get that much electricity down those wires is like trying to push a golf ball down a garden hose.

Then there’s a problem called “islanding”. The grid was designed to be a one-way street, with the source of the electricity at one end of the wire and the destination at the other. So if the guys in the yellow hardhats need to work on the lines, they know exactly where the power is coming from and they know exactly how to shut it off so they won’t get electrocuted. But when there are small generating stations scattered everywhere, it changes the game. You need switches that let you kill the power from both directions. Hydro One has yet to install those in all the locations where they’re needed.

So the applicants blame Hydro One, and Hydro One blames the applicants. Depending on how you look at it, it’s either David-versus-Goliath or Gulliver-versus-Lilliputians.

It’s a rare applicant that deals with enough microFIT projects to become an expert. For most, the number of applications they deal with is exactly one. So if there’s a weakness in the process, namely the fact that the go-ahead is not one green light but rather two half-green lights, it’s no surprise that these people get it wrong. Everyone is a newbie.

It would be nice if someone from Hydro One or OPA would warn the applicants. They could tell these kindly country folks about the pitfall that’s tripped up so many people like them. But neither organization, large as they are, has the staff to have all those conversations.

Is there anyone else that can help? Someone in the middle? Someone dealing with enough cases to be knowledgeable, but not so many that they’re snowed under?

There is. The installers.

If an installer accepts business from someone who has only the OPA letter, they are taking the chance of poisoning the well. They may well be creating a solar naysayer. The groundswell of dissent we’re seeing is not doing any good to the solar industry. The more that potential new customers hear stories suggesting that solar is a bear trap, the more likely that they’ll take their investment dollars somewhere else.

It’s in the best interests of solar installers to have one simple conversation before they start work. “Before you can make a penny off this thing, you need two letters – one from OPA, another from Hydro One. Do you have both?”

If more installers do this, they may get less business in the short term. But they will help to ensure there will still be a solar industry a few years down the road.

And installers, and their customers, will be able to sleep soundly at night.

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