How to create (and destroy) a solar PV export industry, Ontario-style
Been away on vacation and largely unplugged, so apologies for the content dead zone for the past week. Just to get things started again, here is my Clean Break column from last week’s Toronto Star. It takes a look at both the real potential of creating a solar PV export market in Ontario and the many reasons it will now be an uphill struggle. See below:
Here’s a question I get asked all the time: Can solar modules made in Ontario compete in a global marketplace?
Many have their doubts, and those doubts are grounded in reality. The solar photovoltaic modules coming off Ontario assembly lines today are probably not going to find many customers in Europe or the United States.
The key word being “today.”
But give it two or three years. That’s the answer I get from manufacturers that have set up shop in this province, lured by a generous renewable energy purchase program that pays top dollar for electricity produced from solar panels.
We can get our costs down, they say — just give us the breathing room to do it.
That was the whole point of the province’s feed-in tariff (FIT) program. It was designed to provide above-market incentives for the first few years, after which rates would fall, owing to declining technology costs and manufacturing efficiencies that come from volume production.
Knowing the party won’t last, many Ontario manufacturers would ostensibly work to drive down their costs to where they could sell product in the United States and Europe at a globally competitive price-point.
All of that, however, was based on some assumptions. First, most manufacturers assumed a certain demand. Second, they assumed the Ontario grid could accommodate that demand. And third, they expected the program would survive long enough to follow through on their business plans.
The demand part happened. Ontario’s FIT program has resulted in contract offers for more than 1,300 megawatts of solar, exceeding most market forecasts. For example, Spanish solar-module manufacturer Siliken established a plant in Windsor based on the expectation that there would be a need for 400 megawatts of solar panels annually in Ontario.
But things fall apart after that. The program has been in effect for nearly two years, and so far only 10 megawatts worth of large projects have been built and injecting electrons into the grid, according to the latest figures from the Ontario Power Authority.
This may be a bit confusing. The province boasts the largest solar PV facility in the world in Sarnia, rated at 80 megawatts. How could we have built only 10 megawatts?
It turns out most of the solar development in Ontario over the past two years is the result of an earlier initiative, one that didn’t have domestic content rules. In other words, no manufacturers had to lay roots in Ontario to tap into market demand. That’s why panels for the Sarnia project came from U.S.-based First Solar and were made in Michigan.
The newer FIT program does require some domestic content, which is why we now have 18 solar manufacturers in Ontario. To their frustration, they see big demand for their product but their customers can’t get approval to connect their projects to the grid. No connection means no purchase order.
Manufacturers, for good reason, blame Hydro One for dragging its feet. In the meantime, assembly lines have been shut down and employees have been laid off until projects start flowing. Not the kind of environment in which product costs can be reduced and efficiencies gained.
“We came here thinking we could use the local market to support us while we brought our factories up and wrung efficiencies out of systems, getting us closer to competing against our brothers and sisters in China,” says Milfred Hammerbacher, president of Canadian Solar Solutions, whose parent company operates primarily out of China.
“We thought it would be achievable. But we needed two years to get to that level, and right now we’re just not getting that cushion. In a start-up operation where you have two or three of your lines not being used, there’s no way you can come close to being competitive (globally).”
Canadian Solar is committed to getting through this rough patch, as is Siliken. Many, however, are thinking seriously about packing up their bags and moving back home to their corporate parents.
It doesn’t help that Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak wants to cancel the program if elected, pulling the rug from under a promising industry that’s already off balance. Thousands of jobs are at risk, as well as an export sector that — despite the spears we keep throwing at it — still has the potential to thrive if we’d let it.
“We set up in Windsor with the intention to serve the northeast of the U.S.,” says Paco Caudet, Siliken’s general manager in Canada. He just sold his flat in Spain. “I plan to stay here.”
It’s a courageous attitude. Still, why do we make it so easy for them to come, then turn around and make it so difficult for them to stay?
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org