(Written for Root Issues in the Barrie Examiner: http://thebarrieexaminer.com/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=1766456)
I am about to take a big step into the sunlight. Put another way, the sun's about to become my silent financial partner.
I'm going to be (probably) the first person in Barrie to plug into Ontario's new solar feed-in tariff.
What does that mean? Basically, it means I'll have solar panels installed at my house, the power they generate will be fed directly into the grid (not into my house), and I'll get paid 80.2 cents for every kilowatt-hour (kWh) they produce as a monthly cheque, made out to me. It will add up to around $4,000 per year, which means they'll be paid off in no time (I'm financing them, so I don't even have to pay anything up front). The rate is guaranteed for 20 years.
I'm just about dancing with joy. I get to help green-up the grid with clean solar power, and instead of paying a penalty, I'll be getting paid to do it. Paid handsomely, I might add.
Let me roll the calendar back a bit. The Ontario government realized a while ago that adding solar power would be a good thing, for many reasons. But they weren't willing to do much to make it happen, and local utilities were another big hurdle.
First there was "net metering." That meant that when your solar (or wind) generator made electricity and put it into the grid, it ran your meter back, and you were "un-billed" for the same amount.
When it was sunny (or windy), your meter ran backwards, and when it was dark (or still), it ran forwards. If you were lucky, you could net your bill to zero, but that was the best you could hope for -- there were no refunds. At this rate, a panel (or turbine) might never earn back the cost of buying it. You were greening the grid, but paying a price to do it.
This wasn't getting much interest, so Ontario upped the stakes with the "standard offer contract". Recognizing that solar power comes at the time of peak demand -- and peak price -- the province offered a premium, paying 42 cents per kWh of solar electricity (11 cents for wind). But this was also too meagre, as it meant you might break even after 20 years -- or you might not. Too much depended on the fees charged by your local utility, and there were bureaucratic hurdles.
Uptake was ... underwhelming.
Finally Ontario looked around the world to see what actually worked, and has adopted a successful system from Europe. To jump-start the benefits of local renewable generation, the price has been almost doubled, to a proposed 80.2 cents.
Local utility obstacles were swept away. On top of that, the federal government lets you write off half the purchase price in the first year, and half what's left each year thereafter -- potentially saving you thousands in taxes. It's called an accelerated capital cost allowance.
You can also write off some of your home maintenance costs each year. Combined, that means you can pay the system off in as few as four to five years. You are then getting pure profit (and still some write-offs) for the rest of your 20-year contract. Even if you borrow money to get started, the net expected profit over 20 years could be over $50,000. That's a lot of green for going green.
What happens when the contract expires after 20 years? Then the system switches to net-metering, which means that for every kWh I put into the grid, I get a free one back when I need it. Nowadays, that's not much of a deal, but the projected electricity cost 20 years from now is about $1 per kWh, so it will be similar to what the feed-in tariff was paying.
Through pioneering approaches like this, Germany created hundreds of thousands of jobs in renewable energy. Ontario is now poised to do the same -- with my (and your) help.
I'll be hosting an open house once the panels go up, so watch for news of that in this paper. I'd be thrilled if you came out to see how it works, and perhaps you'll leave with plans for your own solar income.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.