Manitoba's solar panel rebate program sidelined until 2022
Efficiency Manitoba says it needs its first 2 years to research, plan a long-term incentive for solar panels
An incentive program that jolted Manitoba's solar energy sector will return, but not until 2022 — which is too long, says one installer, to leave customers waiting to plug into a new provincial rebate program.
Manitoba Hydro was criticized in 2018 for ending the two-year pilot program without indicating what will replace it, if anything.
The utility left the future of the well-received program in the hands of a new Crown corporation called Efficiency Manitoba, which said in a recent report it would reinstate the incentive, but not before 2022.
A four-year gap without a rebate is discouraging, says Justin Phillips, CEO of Sycamore Energy, especially since the province wants to conserve energy.
"This is kicking the can down the road, and frankly, I think they could do better than this," Phillips said.
'Reset button for solar'
Phillips says that gap will make it difficult for industry players who participated in the pilot project to continue.
"I think there's a lot of well-meaning people with Efficiency Manitoba, with Manitoba Hydro, but they're really playing it beyond safe," said Phillips.
"This is really intended, as far as we can tell, to hit the reset button for solar in Manitoba, fully wipe the slate clean, flush out the companies who were doing it, who have been forced to leave the province or seek other means of revenue, and then start over."
The new Crown corporation, devoted exclusively to energy conservation, filed its three-year plan last week to the Public Utilities Board, which detailed for the first time that Efficiency wants to launch a new solar energy program.
The report says Efficiency needs the first two years to research and coordinate with Manitoba Hydro, as a "solar PV [photovoltaic] program will have significant impacts on Manitoba Hydro staff workloads as well as the distribution system."
The document does not explain what a new solar rebate program would look like.
The entire three-year plan remains subject to approval from the Public Utilities Board. If approved, it will take effect on April 1, 2020.
Then, Efficiency intends to start two years of planning for a relaunched solar energy program — which, in Phillips' estimation, is too long.
"Rather than building on the successes of the solar pilot project, they're really letting all of those gains go to waste," he said.
Efficiency Manitoba CEO Colleen Kuruluk said the Crown corporation is driven by a desire to get it right.
There's no question the pilot program exceeded demand. Manitoba Hydro expected to receive around 100 applications, yet ended up with more than 1,550.
But the initiative, which some industry insiders considered the most generous incentive program in the country, wasn't ready to meet demand, Kuruluk said.
"The pilot project did cause a little bit of backlogs in workloads, frustration with industry and frustration with customers and we don't want to do that again. We want to make sure it's put together well."
While a rebate is valuable to encourage solar, Nazim Cicek, a professor in the department of biosystems engineering at the University of Manitoba, said Efficiency Manitoba shouldn't rush into it either.
"I think … jumping into a program without really having thought of all the ins and outs is also not advisable."
Incentive too generous?
Kuruluk said attaching new equipment onto the grid takes a lot of resources and time, as they consider everything from permitting to safety issues.
She was unsure if additional staff would have to be hired.
Phillips acknowledged the backlog and says the incentive, which provided customers with $1 per watt installed for projects up to 200 kilowatts, which was about 25 per cent of the cost, may have been too generous.
But he argues the solar industry in Manitoba is losing ground. The lack of the incentive has already changed the type of customers he gets.
"The market has shifted from solar being for the every man to being something that really is an architectural fascination or an innovative product."
Elizabeth Sawatzky, who had solar panels installed on her family's farm near MacGregor, Man., says the incentive should be brought back sooner than two years, if possible.
She also wishes Manitoba Hydro would buy back the excess power generated by solar systems at a higher rate, as another way to reward people who take on the start-up costs.
With files of Cameron MacLean