Hampered by an uncooperative utility and political fall-out, Ontario has fallen short of its goal of creating 50,000 jobs and 5 gigawatts of renewable energy power with its ‘buy local’ feed-in tariff program, despite gathering early momentum by generating 31,000 jobs and turning one in 7 farmers into energy producers, says a report by the Institute of Local Self-Reliance.
Hydro One, the province’s largest utility, has been a major roadblock to progress says ILSR report author John Farrell, since it set a limit of sourcing just 7 percent of its energy from distributed renewable sources, compared with 15 percent for most US utilities. In US states where the cost of power is high, like Hawaii and California, utilities have upped the limits even further, at 25 and 50 percent respectively.
Farrell says Hydro One did not prepare to accommodate the boom in distributed power from the FIT program and missed deadlines to link up to new sources of power. As a result, despite overwhelming demand for FIT and contracts being signed for most of the 5 gigawatts, only 10 percent of the projects are producing electricity now.
Because of the demand for FIT, Ontario will actually be able to shut down all its coal-fired plants next year, and meet most of its 2030 renewable energy goals 12 years early – but its notable success has come at a price, since unprepared utilities were not able to bring the contracted energy on line.
The slow development led to political backlash that nearly toppled the ruling Liberal Party in the 2011 elections. It did lose its majority, which Farrell says jeopardized support for FIT. The Great Recession also stymied progress.
Since then, Ontario has reviewed the FIT program and revised its rules last year, doubling its focus on local ownership and participation. Farrell believes the move, which he says should have been adopted two years ago, will reduce political angst and local opposition and increase return on investments.
Farrell suggests that the Ontario Power Authority needs to streamline its process for developing renewable power with existing contracts and push utilities to get better at determining grid capacity. It should also review whether utility-scale mega projects make sense, given the difficulties in getting it to market. With these changes, “the FIT program may still live up to much of its early promise” he says.
His findings are in line with a February Pike Research report that says energy is becoming increasingly democratized and the role of utilities is changing, from producing power to purchasing it from distributed sources.