Nanticoke, once North America’s largest coal plant, to host 40MW solar farm

Okay, it’s ridiculous to compare a 40-megawatt solar PV park to a coal-fired power plant that could crank out 4,000 megawatts at peak capacity, but the fact Ontario Power Generation (OPG) got a contract today to build such a solar project at the old Nanticoke Generating Station is, at the very least, symbolically significant.

Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator announced the results Thursday of its Large Renewable Procurement (LRP), which, for good reason, replaces the previous feed-in-tariff (FIT) program. The FIT program just couldn’t keep up with the pace of technological change and learning in the industry, and since the solar and wind industry in Ontario is now well established, it was time to abandon the rich premiums that came with the FIT and make the big boys of renewable energy compete for Ontario’s business.

In total, 455 megawatt of wind, solar and hydro was contracted out as part of the LRP:

  • Five wind contracts totalling 299.5 MW, with a weighted average price of 8.59 cents per kWh;
  • seven solar contracts totalling 139.885 MW, with a weighted average price of 15.67 cents; and
  • four hydroelectric contracts totalling 15.5 MW, with a weighted average price of 17.59 cents.

See list of projects here.

The lowest price Ontario got for wind was 6.45 cents, which is half of what it initially paid under its feed-in-tariff program. As Ontario’s Clean Air Alliance pointed out, that’s lower than what a re-built Darlington Nuclear Station is expected to cost, assuming it doesn’t go over budget (and history says it likely will). Now, nuclear is baseload, wind isn’t. But keep in mind that the purchased wind power comes risk-free to Ontario ratepayers. Can’t say that for nuclear deals in the province, no matter how much lipstick you put on a pig.

With solar, the lowest price locked in was 14.15 cents, which is remarkably close to what Ontario was paying for large-scale wind under its FIT program. It’s also significantly lower than rates for large-scale solar under the FIT program, which back in 2013 started at 34 cents and climbed from there.

These power purchase agreements (PPAs) show just how much solar costs have fallen — and will continue to fall. Now, you may be tempted to point to super-low cost solar contracts announced in places like California, Texas and New Mexico. Toronto-based Skypower has even bid 8 cents (U.S.) for projects in India. But keep in mind the solar regime isn’t as favourable in Ontario, the dollar is lower, and projects were tied to some social goals. For example, 13 of 16 projects include participation from one or more Aboriginal communities, including five projects with more than 50 per cent Aboriginal participation. I wonder, however, if the province could have secured even lower bids if it agreed to backstop loans on winning projects — perhaps from a green bond issue?

Still, the price is heading in the right direction. As the Canadian Solar Industries Association said,

“It is also the first time that a utility scale solar project has been contracted at a price that is lower than the retail rate of electricity in Ontario.”

That’s a milestone we should all remember.

But back to the OPG contract. Its significance wasn’t lost on Dan Woynillowicz, policy director at Clean Energy Canada.

“It’s both a powerful symbol and great progress to see a contract offered for a solar farm that will be built on the land once occupied by the Nanticoke coal-fired power plant, once Canada’s top greenhouse gas polluter.”

I wrote about OPG’s planned bid for solar projects last May in Corporate Knights. At the time, OPG was hoping to win up to 120 megawatts worth of projects, which would be spread across its shut down Nanticoke and Lambton generation sites, as well as its still-operating Lennox station near Kingston.

Here’s what I said:

OPG, a publicly owned crown corporation, has historically been held back from bidding on renewable energy projects, given that its sheer size and influence were seen as unfair advantages in a competitive, open market procurement process. The company supplies roughly half of the province’s power, mostly through nuclear and large hydroelectric facilities.

In June 2013, however, the Ontario government restructured its feed-in-tariff program such that only smaller renewable-energy projects could participate. Larger project proposals, those generally more than 500 kilowatts in size, would need to compete through a request-for-proposal (RFP) process.

And in a controversial twist, Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli directed the Ontario Power Authority to allow OPG to participate in all renewable energy procurement rounds.

I think it’s smart to let OPG enter this game. Sure, it’s a large publicly owned incumbent, but the solar market has matured and can hold its own. OPG also has unique experience (and recent success) partnering with aboriginal communities.

One potential hitch is that SunEdison is OPG’s development partner. The company is going through some tough times right now (the existential kind), and it’s unclear whether that will have an impact on OPG’s plans.

Climate and Mental Health Series in the Toronto Star

Earlier this week — Sunday and Monday — the Toronto Star ran several stories of mine that draw a direct link between climate change and mental health.

OuchterlonyThe first story, which to my pleasant surprise was run above the fold on A1 on Sunday, starts with Ontario coroner and former palliative care physician David Ouchterlony, who says his anxiety and despair over the growing climate threat has affected him more deeply — emotionally and psychologically — than the years he spent caring for dying patients or investigating causes of death. But Ouchterlony isn’t alone. The mental health impacts of climate change, particularly on those most vulnerable to it, is expected to grow and could become a serious public health crisis that we’re not prepared for and which, in Canada, is not even on the radar. This article provides an overview of the issue, how the American Psychological Association is taking it seriously, and how its Canadian counterpart and public healthy agencies in Canada aren’t really paying attention to this sleeper of an issue. Be sure to also read Ouchterlony’s own words in this thoughtful response to an e-mail I sent him last month asking: How is something like concern over climate change different from the kinds of feelings you have as a coroner, or had as a palliative care physician?

The same day the Star also ran a story focused on farmers, and how crazy and more extreme weather events linked to climate instability are making an already tough job more difficult. Farmers are a group with some of the highest rates of depression and suicide, and the fear is that climate change is going to make the situation worse for their mental health. Again, there’s not a lot of research in Canada looking at this issue, so these people are largely struggling silently.

Prof_Ashlee_Cunsolo_WilloxFinally, on Monday the Star ran my article focused on climate change and its psychological impacts on northern and remote aboriginal communities. The story leans heavily on the pioneering research of Cape Breton University professor Ashlee Cunsolo Willox, who has spent considerable time over the past few years visiting Inuit communities in Nunatsiavut, Labrador, and documenting how populations there are coping mentally with the changes around them and how it’s impacting their way of life. Canada’s north is being disproportionately affected by climate change and these indigenous communities are on the front lines. They need our attention and our help.

The package touches on other vulnerable groups, such as scientists/environmentalists, the poor and elderly, and those directly affected by extreme weather events, such as floods, droughts and hurricanes. This last group I would categorize as sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The other groups are struggling with a more anticipatory, existential kind of anxiety about climate change that can fuel hopelessness, despair, guilt and depression. Some might group this as “pre-traumatic stress disorder,” which I think is a useful term. A person quoted in one of my stories called it “the slow drip of climate change.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 6.23.37 PMAs expected, some have commented that the series is alarmist and will only serve to feed anxieties. If telling the truth is alarmist, then so be it. Others will say I dwelled only on the problem and didn’t get deep enough into the discussion of how to bolster mental resilience. I should have focused more on positive developments, emerging new technologies, and adaptation as a way to short-circuit anxieties. I agree, that discussion is needed and that discussion will come. But first I had to identify that the mental health challenge is real — that it exists and has the potential to grow much worse as evidence of climate change becomes more apparent in our daily lives.

The first step to finding solutions is admitting we have a problem, and while only a small slice of the population suffers psychologically from what might flippantly be called the climate blues, I would argue that it’s a process we all have to go through if we are to become — emerge — more mentally resilient to the changes in our surrounding environment and how they affect our lives.

So let’s have the discussion. Let’s recognize the problem. Let’s devote resources to research. Let’s create a plan and the necessary support as part of municipal, provincial and federal adaptation measures. Both the Mental Health Commission of Canada and the Canadian Psychological Association need to develop a position, remembering it’s both a public health concern and something that can affect the country’s economic productivity.

Finally, feel free to reach out if you have a story to share.

CoPower puts the “green” in retail investing

This story was originally published in the Toronto Star.

By Tyler Hamilton

Investing directly in green energy projects just became a whole lot easier for Canadians looking to shift their savings away from fossil fuels.

CoPower, a start-up co-headquartered in Toronto and Montreal, has just launched a retail “green bond” that raises money for specific pools of solar, geothermal and energy-efficiency projects.

The five-year bond, the first of its kind to be available across Canada, offers a 5 per cent annual return, compared to less than 2 per cent for GICs and Canada Savings Bonds.

BERLINER_MARS-Social-Finance-_WEB
CoPower co-founder and CEO David Berliner

David Berliner, co-founder and chief executive of CoPower, said the company developed the product to fill a gap in the emerging marketplace for impact investing, a form of socially responsible investing that is not generally accessible to the average Canadian.

In essence, CoPower aims to democratize impact investing through a form of crowdfunding, the potential of which was, until recently, limited in Ontario by securities regulations.

“A lot of people have been trying to do investments that align with their values, increasingly in the green energy space, but they’ve found it hard,” said Berliner, 28, who founded the company two years ago to expand access to the market beyond sophisticated or accredited investors.

At this point, individuals looking to purchase the bonds have to do so in $5,000 increments, which might not be for everyone. The bonds can, however, be held in self-directed RRSP, tax-free savings and other registered accounts.

One of CoPower’s core innovations is an online platform — at copower.me — that walks investors through the registration process and assures all investments comply with securities regulations. An online dashboard allows for tracking of investments and the projects they’re tied to, creating a level of transparency that people find reassuring, Berliner said.

“Technology is definitely an enabler here. From the get-go, the vision has been to have an online platform that lets us reach a broader base of different investors,” he said.

Michelle Brownlee, director of policy at Ottawa-based think tank Sustainable Prosperity, said CoPower’s retail green bond appears to be unique in Canada. There are local community green bonds, such as those offered by ZooShare or SolarShare, but both are limited at this point to Ontario and are focused on specific technologies.

She said that by harnessing the collective power of individual investors, CoPower could become an important source of capital for many clean energy projects, which are expected to grow substantially over the coming years as Canada works to meet its Paris climate commitments.

“Green bonds are moving very quickly from niche to mainstream,” said Brownlee, adding that CoPower’s approach “could potentially be very big.”

About $66 billion (U.S.) in green bonds have been issued globally, of which $1.3 billion are Canadian, according to a December report from Sustainable Prosperity. The bonds have been targeted at and readily scooped up by institutional buyers, with Export Development Canada, the Ontario government, and Toronto-Dominion Bank among the biggest issuers so far.

The Trudeau government has said it will establish a Canada Infrastructure Bank that would also introduce green bonds, mostly to institutional investors but also the public “when appropriate.”

At the retail level, “there’s a huge pent-up demand for this kind of product,” said Tom Rand, a manager partner with ArcTern Ventures, a venture capital fund in Toronto that focuses on clean energy technologies.

“The financial community is really conservative, so it has taken an entrepreneur like David to come in from the outside and shake things up. It’s brilliant.”

If CoPower can pull it off, said Rand, others will more likely follow. “This will go far in educating the public.”

To keep the investment risk low, CoPower’s first bond is backed by two loans to clean power projects that are already built, operational and delivering returns — two large rooftop solar projects in southwestern Ontario and energy-saving building automation and LED lighting systems installed at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.

Over the time, CoPower will build its portfolio of projects and launch new rounds of green bonds along the way. Money raised will support loans to smaller clean-energy projects being built by a network of experienced energy development partners. They’re the kind of projects big banks tend to avoid.

“It’s an underserved market,” said Berliner, whose past work includes consulting for the mayor of New York City’s renewable energy office and coordinating sustainability initiatives at the University of Toronto.

CoPower got a major boost in October when RBC led an $850,000 round of financing in the company. Having RBC as an equity owner, Berliner said, “helps bring credibility to our team, business model and brand.”

China coal use falls for second year in a row: IEA boss

Here’s what Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, tweeted this morning:

The key two words here are “if continues.” During the Paris climate summit, researchers from the Tyndall Centre at the U.K.’s University of East Anglia and colleagues in the U.S., Australia and Norway approached 2014 and 2015 coal use and emissions data with cautious optimism. Is it a lasting trend, or an anomaly? It’s still too early to say.

Driven mostly by a need to get local air pollution under control, China has put a 2020 cap on coal emissions. Less economic emphasis is being put on energy-intensive industries such as steel manufacturing and big investment continues in renewables. That, combined with an economic slowdown, has contributed to a shifting to a “new normal,” said Glen Peters from Norway’s Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research. “It’s happening faster than we expected.”

Assuming the latest data from China is more than just an anomaly, what does that mean in the battle to rein in global GHG emissions? Answering that question means knowing what will happening in India, which was described by the researchers as the big wild card. India’s actions over the next 20 years could make or break attempts to keep average global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees C – let alone keeping such temperatures “well below” that threshold, a target specified in the Paris agreement.

There’s been a lot of hope that global GHG emissions and global GDP have permanently “decoupled”, meaning we can achieve economic growth without increasing emissions. Usually the two rise in lock-step, but the researchers, in a paper published last month in the journal Nature Climate Change, reported that global emissions were expected to fall last year during a period of decent economic growth. That’s unusual – and potentially great news – given that emissions growth between 2003 and 2014 averaged 2.4 per cent.

We’ll see. Some believe India won’t pull its weight in the climate fight, while others point to the country’s determination to embrace renewables, particularly solar. During the Paris summit one of the big announcements came from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who spearheaded creation of a 120-country solar alliance to help realize the “dream of universal access to clean energy.”

On the other hand, one of the most sobering moments during the Paris conference was when I heard India’s energy-efficiency chief Ajay Mathur talk about one of the country’s biggest challenges: a fast-growing middle class that wants air conditioning. Studies forecast that India’s middle class could double to half a billion people before 2030, and these people will want more of the comforts that North Americans take for granted. India has had its share of heat waves and is expected to experience more as the climate changes, so who could blame them for wanting to keep cool – especially if they have the means?

Mathur’s wish list over the coming years: amazingly energy-efficient air conditioners, “using at least half if not a third as much energy as we use today, and affordable as well,” he said. “How do we make that happen?”

It’s the billion-dollar question for a country that, based on its current energy trajectory, is expected to become the world’s largest importer of coal by 2020.

This isn’t to downplay Birol’s comment today about China. That such changes are taking place in China is tremendous news that should be applauded and encouraged. But we need to see in India what is currently happening in China before intolerable levels of smog begins choking its urban populations. Fortunately, renewable energy technologies are much more mature and affordable compared to when China began its rapid growth phase. Also, India has the benefit of learning from China’s mistakes and it has the backing of developed countries that want to see it make the right choices. Finally, post-Paris, it has added pressure from the international community to get it right.

 

The how, what and why of transitioning to a post-Paris world