Ontario has so far dominated the PV scene in Canada, despite huge need and potential for the technology in other parts of the country. James Montgomery weighs up solar’s prospects for taking root in Canada’s other provinces

Canada is now among the top 10 nations in total installed solar PV, expected to hit roughly 2GW of installed capacity by next year. The nation added about 444MW of PV last year, about 58% growth on 2012, to a cumulative 1.2GW – double the capacity of just two years ago and compared with practically nothing (33MW) in 2009. The vast majority of this is happening in Ontario, which has far surpassed the rest of the provinces in solar-supportive policies and educating consumers and businesses about its benefits. Broadly speaking, though, Canada is a fledgling solar market, representing just 1% of the electricity mix both provincially and in total.

Trade body Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSIA) has laid out some aggressive projections for the nation's PV growth trajectory in its draft ‘Solar Vision 2025’ roadmap, planned for full release by year's end: a best-case scenario of more than 14GW of total installed solar. CanSIA also projects PV project costs to plummet more than 50% to below CA$150 per MWh, and that the nation's solar workforce will swell nearly tenfold to 35,000. Today, according to CanSIA, bringing utility solar electricity down to equality with other generation sources means an energy rate of CA$170-$180/MWh, and capital cost subsidy of CA$2,500-2,750 per kW.

Map of the photovoltaic potential and solar resources of Canada. Source: Natural Resources Canada.

These are lofty goals considering that there is no centralised national energy policy to drive them. Electricity and energy sectors are almost entirely dictated by provincial governments, resulting in a patchwork of regional energy policies.

That's also meant CanSIA's solar advocacy has focused on Ontario's aggressive launch and expansion of solar PV since 2009, acknowledges president and CEO, John Gorman. Last month's elections in Ontario strengthened the provincial government to a majority position, seemingly ensuring the province will continue its commitment to renewable energy-friendly legislation, particularly for solar. This means "an unprecedented period of stability and transparency" in how much solar energy will be built out and procured over the next several years, Gorman says.

But the solar policy stability and predictability now settling in Ontario means it's time to redirect the industry's gaze outside Ontario's provincial boundaries. This shift to open up other markets, Gorman believes, is essential, helping them take advantage of the resources invested and experience harvested in Ontario. "All the activity has been happening in one province," he says. "We need to expand to other regions."

Alberta: Cleaning up its energy act

The province of Alberta is Canada's second-largest economy and its natural resources and energy powerhouse. Alberta sees a need for 7GW of additional electricity supply by 2022, mostly because of retiring old coal plants, and that challenge intensifies in the broader picture: generation must double (to 26GW) within the next 40 years to match rising demand, with the added complication that 85% of the province's coal-fired generation needs to be retired, according to CanSIA.

This would seem to be an easy call for more renewable energy, but long-promised renewable energy support in Alberta's deregulated electricity sector has yet to materialise. Roughly 17% of Alberta’s electricity generation capacity comes from renewables, mostly hydro and wind; coal still makes up the vast majority. The province has begun to embrace wind energy, but its lack of solar energy development is especially egregious since Alberta boasts the nation's best solar resources, far better than that of Ontario or even Germany.

What's mostly defined Alberta's energy direction in recent years has been its fossil-fuel sector, especially its electricity sector which is just as emissions-unfriendly as the tar sands operations that have placed Alberta's entire energy policies under scrutiny. Thus the province is increasingly motivated to demonstrate its environmental responsibilities, developing not only oil reserves in a responsible manner but being sustainability leaders in all business sectors, most especially electricity.

To that end, the Alberta government is currently developing an alternative/renewable energy framework, soliciting input from both conventional and renewable generation representatives to consult on what that framework might look like. (The province previously adopted a Micro-generation Regulation in 2009 and recently extended it until December 2015.) That framework is expected to be released later this summer, and solar "will be at the core" of it, Gorman predicts. CanSIA's wish list for Alberta's new solar-friendly policies:

  • A minimum of 1.5% electricity demand from solar by 2022
  • More than 1GW of solar installed capacity, and 1.25TWh of annual electricity generation
  • More than CA$3.2 billion in investments for construction and installation
  • Pilot-scale introduction for more large-scale solar (>150mw)

Bringing solar to BC

Earlier this month, it transpired that British Columbia is to become home to what is claimed to be the largest PV plant west of Ontario. The1.05MW SunMine project in Kimberley will be built by international contractor, Conergy, on the site of a former mine and supply power to the grid operated by utility BC Hydro.

Kimberley in British Columbia is to host the 1.05MW SolarMine project, said to Canada's largest PV power plant west of Ontario. Image: SolarMine

British Columbia has some impressive goals by 2020, through its Clean Energy Act in 2010: reduce greenhouse gases by a third from 2007 levels and source 93% of total electricity generation from clean energy, though without any solar-specific criteria. Solar energy here faces a first hurdle: hydro and wind are already providing "green" energy, and at a far cheaper price than solar.

BC Hydro serves 95% of the province's roughly 1.9 million customers, with around 12GW of installed generating capacity from 31 hydroelectric facilities and three thermal generating plants. Its latest Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) as of last November underscores the mounting challenge: over the next two decades, the province's expanding population will force BC Hydro to accommodate another 1.1 million customers and the resulting extra economic activity. Near-term demand growth can be met with existing generation and conservation efforts, but BC Hydro forecasts a supply-demand gap within a 10-year horizon and a 40% increase in electricity demand within 20 years.

BC Hydro has been purchasing clean power from independent power providers (IPPs) since the 1980s, currently with 81 contracts meeting about 20% of its electricity needs. It also wants to play for more natural gas and hydro.

Though BC Hydro's IRP doesn't include procuring large-scale solar – the clean energy chapter of its IRP doesn't have a single mention of solar – the utility does have a net metering programme for residential and commercial customers, for systems sized up to 50kW nameplate capacity limit, with an annual payout rate of 9.99 cents/kWh. Earlier this year BC Hydro asked the BC Utilities Commission to double that to 100kW.

Minor markets

Beyond Alberta and British Columbia, solar energy is making tiny inroads. In the Prairies, Saskatchewan and Manitoba both have solar net metering programmes. Manitoba caps its programme at 10MW. SaskPower also offers a 20% rebate for solar PV costs up to CA$20,000 for net-metered installations. In the eastern Maritimes, net metering is available in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, but not in Newfoundland/Labrador. Nova Scotia Power recently increased tenfold the system size limit for its net metering programme, now at 1MW. Quebec's renewable energy focus is largely on hydro, though it does have offer net metering for crediting grid-connected solar PV systems.

The Northwest Territories, currently deeply reliant on diesel for electricity generation, is also a frontier of solar PV growth. This region aims to have 20% of its communities' average load provided by solar by 2017, amounting to 1.8MW. Government grants are available to offset costs by up to CA$5,000 for residential users up to CA$50,000 for entire communities or organisations. Yukon has a net metering policy for PV via a micro-generation policy; Nunavut does not.

Remote success

One clear success story for solar PV in Canada is its value in rural and remote applications. The T’Sou-ke First Nation aboriginal community on Vancouver Island, BC, started building solar PV in 2009 and now boasts over 400 rooftop PV solar panels, the province's largest solar installation, which at peak operation can produce up to 90% of the community's power. Surplus is sold to BC Hydro, and the community relies on the grid during winter months. There also are dozens of home solar hot water systems, and a solar-powered electric vehicle charging station.

Back in northern Ontario, the Deer Lake First Nation is building out a micro-grid with solar PV in a hybrid diesel-PV system with a 152-kW rooftop solar array, expecting the system to cut the community's diesel consumption in half. Seeing a market niche, Canadian Solar recently opened a microgrid testing center in Guelph, Ontario, to focus efforts on microgrid design, testing, and integration. Deer Lake project developer NCC Development says it sees 80 more similar communities ripe for microgrid deployments using solar.

Ben Frank, channel manager for ABB North America, sees remote off-grid applications for solar having "moderate growth" but requiring incentives to be a viable market: "To date this appears to be more of a small market segment opportunity."

Grid-connected solar PV has a long road ahead to become cost-competitive with other renewable energy options, let alone fossil fuels, in many Canadian regions. But micro-grids utilising multiple energy sources – diesel and solar PV, wind and solar PV, and/or some biomass – are increasingly viable options, especially in remote regions where they can be cost-competitive up front with current energy supplies (often diesel alone).

Hit the targets?

To fulfill CanSIA's 2025 goals, what many agree is needed first is broader policy support for solar, and more public awareness. And the biggest hurdle for broader adoption of solar PV outside of Ontario is a lack of what Ontario has created: strong policies and incentives, both grid-tied and off-grid.

"Several key provinces such as Alberta and BC will need to release a similar FiT or other incentive programme," says ABB's Frank. "There are no consistent incentives outside of Ontario." ABB is pursuing various commercial and residential projects in both AB and BC, activity that should ramp up later this year, he said, but generally speaking "projects in AB and BC are on a case-by-case basis".

Another emphasis has to be residential and small commercial installations before progression to utility-scale, which is how solar markets everywhere have developed, points out Shawn Qu chief executive of Canadian Solar. "It's going to be [a] multi-year effort" to get any non-Ontario markets into the megawatt-scale size," he says. "To get grid-scale solar, you need to go to the mass population." Outside Ontario solar opportunities are "nice markets", he says, but not at the scale of tens or hundreds of megawatts to help drive the broader solar market. Scaling up the domestic market to those 2025 goals will require broad adoption from the masses; solar arguably has a much bigger impact on rural and remote communities, but those numbers won't move the overall needle much.

Some suggest CanSIA's goals are perhaps too optimistic. "The biggest challenge right now is the political will of the other provinces to adopt a solar policy," declares one inverter company rep, suggesting "a seismic shift" across all provinces' policies would be needed to bring online the extra 10GW within a decade to hit CanSIA's top-end 14GW mark. Unlike governments such as Germany, Canada currently has no "social licence to promote solar", he says.

It's going to be an “optimistic, challenging goal", agrees Qu. However, he quickly adds that "the solar market always surprises me", listing swift changes in market dynamics spanning Italy to Ontario. "I think Canada can also surprise... it may turn out to be optimistic and achievable."

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James Montgomery
Freelance journalist

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