The fight over the future of renewable energy in Ontario
Rupp Carriveau spends his days trying to find ways to harness the power of the wind.
A researcher specializing in wind energy and engineering at the University of Windsor, Carriveau believes the McGuinty Liberal government's decision to offer lucrative incentives to renewable energy proponents wishing to connect to the power grid is the right thing to do for the environment.
He also says the incentives — enshrined within the Green Energy Act that passed in 2009 — are imperative to spurring on green technology.
Carriveau said that when he travels internationally, Ontario is recognized as a world leader in renewable energy research and implementation.
"The original Green Energy Act, whether you like it or you don't, you have to acknowledge that contribution it made and that's critical," said Carriveau in an interview. "It got us on the map."
Carriveau says the incentives will help close the gap on renewable technology that can't yet compete cost-effectively with conventional energy generation, like hydro-electricity or nuclear power.
"I'm really glad the government had the foresight to do that," he said.
But Carriveau has concerns with how the green energy incentives are being rolled out.
Smart grid needs to get smarter
The professor says the real key to the future of Ontario's energy plan is how renewable power can be integrated into the existing power grid architecture.
Carriveau is concerned about the haphazard way "everyone and his brother is putting a solar panel up," creating a mish mash of generation resources plugging into the grid — something he says will ultimately cost the taxpayers money, and slow down the implementation of renewable energy technology.
He said it's up to the government to create more specific rules on what can qualify to hook up to the grid, and include efficiency targets so that technology coming online performs well.
"Admittedly renewables are still struggling in that area," Carriveau said. "I think we have to keep reminding ourselves that just getting a bunch of inefficient renewable solutions on the grid is not the answer. We need to be sure that we're really pushing researchers and companies to do their very best to put the very best renewable solutions on the grid."
Energy Minister Brad Duguid acknowledged the struggle to upgrade transmission hookups to meet the unprecedented backlog to connect renewable power projects to the grid, but he side-stepped the criticism on energy efficiency.
"We're investing double the amount of investment in upgrading our transmission than the previous government," Duguid said.
Tories target energy bills
Most of all, Carriveau doesn't want to see the green energy train derailed because of voter fears over rising energy bills.
"For the sake of a few dollars here and there, we could really cripple our progress," he said.
The Progressive Conservatives, if elected, would scrap the Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program, only honouring those with existing contracts. Tory Leader Tim Hudak has also pledged to cancel the $7-billion deal the Liberals made with Samsung C & T Corp. in January 2010 to manufacture wind turbines in the province, touted by the Liberals to be the source of thousands of future Ontario direct and indirect jobs.
John Yakabuski, Tory energy critic, says the subsidies for alternative energy are too high.
"It's not a few dollars we're talking about." said Yakabuski. "The Samsung deal alone would mean a billion dollars of subsidy per year in the power prices being paid for the wind power that Samsung would develop."
The Liberals are offering a 10 per cent discount off of electricity bills for the next five years, a period in which prices are expected to rise by 46 per cent. They are also proposing a Northern Ontario Energy Tax Credit worth up to $200 per year on average.
The New Democratic Party has focused its green energy platform on a rebate program, worth up to $5,000 for those who retrofit their homes to be more energy efficient. They say the Liberals cancelled the Home Energy Savings Program last year and will wind down conservation programs after 2015.
The NDP plan to maintain the Liberal's FIT program for small and community-based programs and honour all existing green energy contracts. Large scale projects would move toward public ownership, said the party website.
The Green Party says its energy plan would prioritize grid access for community-based renewable energy projects, instead of reserving access for large corporations. It would also give planning powers for energy projects back to municipalities — something the Green Energy Act has taken away.
Professor challenges Liberal job numbers
Lydia Miljan, an associate professor of political science at the University of Windsor, says green energy has the potential to define the election.
"The problem is, is that we actually have surplus electricity," Miljan said. "We're giving away our electricity to our neighbours and at the same time we are going to be charging individual Ontarians for their own power at a higher rate than they had before."
The turbo-charged subsidization of one sector can come at a cost to others, Miljan said, tying some of Europe's recent financial problems in part to "heavy" subsidization of green technology in certain countries.
"And that's just bad public policy," she said.
She is also critical of the government's projections for the jobs created from the Samsung deal. The Liberals predict the Samsung contract will create about 16,000 green energy jobs in Ontario by 2015, although so far only 600 full-time positions have been created.
"They won't tell us how they get those calculations," she said. "These things are all pie in the sky."
Duguid, the minister of energy, said the government's job numbers are, in fact, conservative.
"These are real workers working on real jobs and our economy is leading the world, and so anybody that doubts that, they just have to go out and tour around the province as I would hope Mr. Hudak is because his plan is to kill those jobs by destroying our green energy economies."
Miljan said the Liberals have been able to own the issue because the NDP and Conservatives have been vague so far about how they'd change or replace the Green Energy Act.
The recent announcement that the government found $327 million in savings by renegotiating its seven-year deal with Samsung makes it more difficult for a successor government to make further changes, she said.