Grey skies, grim faces

Canadian electrons, or Danish?

This week I went to Community Power 2011, a conference presented by the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association (OSEA).

It felt like any of the bazillion conferences I’ve attended. Nametags dangle from lanyards adorned with sponsor logos. Keynote speeches – even from the mouthpieces of much-reviled organizations – are greeted with polite applause. Audience members queue up to speak their questions into faulty, intermittent microphones. People shuffle past slick trade show booths as they nibble bland and repetitive buffet lunches. Smiling schmoozers sip cocktails at the social hour and awards ceremony.

The attendees were an eclectic mix of equipment manufacturers, university professors, labour unionists, First Nations band council members, lawyers, engineering consultants, construction contractors, financiers, farmers, and bureaucrats. Their common purpose is to take our current paradigm of energy production and use – archaic, inefficient, environmentally destructive, and the exclusive preserve of massive corporations – into a new era where communities harvest and use their own energy efficiently, cleanly, and without bequeathing future generations a crippling debt and ruined planet.

This aspect lent the conference a feeling of purpose, of mission, of manifest destiny that I hadn’t experienced in any other. Everyone I spoke to shared a sense that the future of the world is in our hands, the solution to the world’s most pressing problem is within our reach, and we need to get on with the job.

However, the gathering had another novel aspect. Lurking just below the surface, creeping into podium speeches, popping up each time I struck up a conversation, was a pervasive sense of gloom. Developers are watching their contracts sit in limbo, so they are trimming their staff and wondering how long they have until they run out of capital. Manufacturers are shutting down production lines and hoping to sell off accumulated inventory. Potential customers have waited so long for their MicroFIT applications to be processed, they despair of their dream projects ever seeing the light of day.

Ontario’s Green Energy Act had promised to usher in a brave new world. This ain’t it.

The reason is clear, but the cause is not. Everyone knows that the FIT and MicroFIT programs – which allow individuals and organizations to produce and sell green power in the province – are horrendously backlogged. One speaker gave the figure of 43,000 applications submitted, but only 5,000 contracts actually executed. Somewhere in Hydro One, or the Ontario Power Authority, or both, a bureaucratic bottleneck is strangling an entire industry.

An industry in deep trouble is never a pleasant thing. But this isn’t just any industry. The future of our economy, our race, and our planet is at stake. If we get this wrong, we have ruined everything. So along with gloom was intense frustration. We are not just citizens of Rome, we are the firefighters, forced to watch the majesty of our city disappearing in flames while Emperor Nero plays his fiddle.

Who is our Nero? Is it Hydro One? Is it the Ontario Power Authority (OPA)? Is it some other player? Theories abound, some reminiscent of the daft conspiracies spouted by Internet trolls, others depressingly credible.

I spoke to one person who blamed the line workers of Hydro One. Many are approaching retirement, and will have to relearn their trade if they are to work effectively in a world of distributed rather than centralized power. They are the very people doing the connection assessments and then making the hook-ups afterwards. So, my conversation partner theorizes, they are dragging their heels for all their worth. The only solution is to clean house in a radical way, ditching the worst offenders and putting the fear of God in the remainder.

Another fellow conference-goer accused Hydro One engineers of over-the-top conservatism. Like all from this profession (I am one, so I know whereof I speak), they take the limiting parameters – voltage, current, resistance, etc. – from exhaustive laboratory failure testing, then add an arbitrary safety factor large enough to make them comfortable, then they use that as a rule for field practice. Trouble is, the Hydro One safety factor is much larger than that used elsewhere, particularly in places that have already deployed distributed power generation successfully on a large scale. Canadian electrons behave the same as Danish ones, so the discrepancy is hard to justify. This is especially galling to developers when it means the difference between Hydro One approving or rejecting their project.

Then there is the Customer Service Epic Fail camp. They point out that Hydro One has a certain mindset when it comes to all the little people out there at the end of the wires – they are ratepayers, they receive their electricity and pay their bills, period. Suppliers are another player in the Hydro One world, but they have always been large and few. FIT and MicroFIT have produced legions of small suppliers (actual and aspiring). The Hydro One people deployed to deal with this new beast are ill-equipped and too few in number. As a result, nobody can find out where their application is in the process, and odd things are happening – one applicant had a neighbour apply after they did, found out that the neighbour got connected, and then was told that there was now no room on the grid segment for any more projects. It’s enough to make a person throw a…to make a person go berserk.

My view is that while each of these theories has merit, there are two other big-picture explanations. First, although the GEA set targets for how much solar and other renewables would be in the province’s energy mix by certain milestone dates, it did not include a triage mechanism to expedite the highest-value projects (namely city rooftop installations – see this previous post). It also included no mechanism to regulate the flow of applications. The response from the public has been far larger than the program authors imagined, and both Hydro One and OPA were woefully unprepared. Now, instead of starting with the most beneficial projects and working down the pile, all projects are treated the same – and at the same glacial pace. As a result, the program will not yield all the benefits to the public that it could.

Second, and most importantly, the key players have not been given the right incentives and the right mandate. Hydro One is focused on grid reliability; anything that might interfere with that is the enemy. OPA is focused on long-term large-scale supply, so – in spite of huge public opposition arising from stranded debt and the Fukushima disaster – nuclear is their most attractive option. Dealing with a myriad of tiny suppliers is as delightful a prospect as being stripped naked, smeared with honey, and staked down on top of a fire ant colony. And local municipalities are concerned with safety, so that generally means approving the same way of doing the same things, and looking with deep suspicion on anything new or innovative, like, for example, solar panels or wind turbines.

Nobody has the mandate to ensure the GEA does the most public good, as measured by the most watts of usable green energy brought online to replace brown energy. Nobody has the mandate to rethink safety factors devised before most Ontarians were born. Nobody has the mandate to treat FIT and MicroFIT applicants like human beings.

Until these incentives and mandates are put in place, and backed up by an institution and/or legal framework with real teeth, the GEA will not live up to its promise.

And there will be more glum faces at Community Power 2012.

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