Ontario’s solar success hits a snag in Windsor

It was touted as a solar success story. The city of Windsor, which formerly had strong economic ties to the Detroit motor industry, had suffered with the decline in this industry and was hit hard by the economic downturn. However, as solar installations and photovoltaics picked up in Ontario, Windsor sprung back to life, attracting investors and new businesses.

Lorne Stephenson from Ontario’s Potentia Solar told pv magazine that Windsor’s recovery and emerging solar industry is a genuinely good news. "It has survived for a long time in part by assisting in the auto sector and with that sector in Detroit at least being pretty hard hit. So guess where a number of solar manufacturers are looking to set up factories and assembly!"

However in the face of these developments, grid capacity issues have undermined further solar installations and are threatening jobs in the sector, according to local solar manufacturers. OYA Solar builds racking systems and they have been complaining bitterly about the lack of grid capacity.

With a lack of grid capacity, utilities – in Windsor’s case the state-owned Hydro One – restrict the amount of renewable energy that can be added to the grid. Hydro One’s present peak time limit is seven percent. The result of this is that many are reticent to install solar when they may not be able to feed their solar generated energy back into the grid.

OYA Solar’s Manish Nayar has been particularly outspoken and he said he’s considering moving the business to elsewhere in Canada or even the U.S., "our investors are saying, does it make sense to stay in Ontario?" The Windsor solar industry also accuses Hydro One of deliberately dragging its feet over upgrading the system.

Canadian solar market analyst Jon Worren thinks that these accusations are perhaps a step too far but agrees that utilities have not responded quickly enough. "I think on the surface that these utility companies knew that there would be an increase in demand for distributed generation. But in most cases it seems that they did not think it was going to be as big as it has been. It appears that they have been taken by surprise," Worren told pv magazine.

Worren, whose consultanty ClearSky yesterday delivered some research into the Ontario electricity distribution system to a client, continued that the shift from centralized generation to distributed generation is a big one for utilities. "If you’re a utility company, the way the grid is set up and the way they’ve done their job the last 40 years it clearly favors centralized generation. And I’m not sure [the change] is that popular within these organizations."

The government in Ontario is also feeling some pressure over the issue. Toronto’s Minister of Energy Brad Duguid wrote in the local newspaper the Windsor Star, "there are challenges to overcome, like any new industry that is growing." He continued, "finding a solution to grid capacity issues is a task we are determined to resolve and one we are making significant progress on."