Here is my Clean Break column from this past week’s Toronto Star:
By TYLER HAMILTON
Ontario has its own modern-day Stonehenge.
Didn’t you know?
Walking through a field of wild grasses and flowers at the Kortright Centre in Woodbridge you can see it as you approach: an organized display of majestic, sun-worshipping structures.
Instead of mysteriously erected stones dating back to 3,000 BC, however, these structures are solar modules mounted on tall poles or laid out on racking systems. The Kortright Centre calls the area PVPV, which aims to become country’s premier facility for testing and showcasing made-in-Canada solar technologies.
“We call it Solarhenge,” says Paul Luukkonen, who as sustainable technologies co-ordinator at Kortright is leading the PVPV initiative.
The centre is located on 325 hectares of woodlands, a little northwest of where Highway 400 and Major McKenzie Dr. intersect. There, about 130,000 visitors a year can go on hikes, watch wildlife, taste maple syrup or participate in one of dozens of practical workshops focused on renewable energy.
Owned and operated by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, it also has the space to grow. When the province introduced its feed-in-tariff program to encourage the deployment of renewable technologies, including solar power, Luukkonen and his team saw an opportunity.
Before the program, there was only one company in Ontario making solar panels, a Woodbridge-based firm called SolGate. With new local content rules in place, more foreign manufacturers have started setting up assembly operations in the province. Luukkonen figures there are now about 18 brands of solar photovoltaic panels made in Ontario, and that number is expected to grow.
“Problem is, we’ve been seeing a lot of funny promises from companies about the return on investment from their panels and how much energy their systems provide,” says Luukkonen.
For example, research from Natural Resources Canada indicates a typical 1-kilowatt solar panel can produce 1,161 kilowatt-hours per year in southern Ontario, yet some manufacturers and developers are claiming their products can produce up to 1,500 kilowatt-hours – on par with Los Angeles and Mexico City.
“Out of concern for sustainability of the industry, we want to make sure these salespeople are giving consumers realistic expectations,” adds Luukkenon, explaining how the PVPV initiative came about.
The plan now is to launch a facility that will test Ontario-made panels side by side at the same angle of exposure to the sun. Using the latest data-collection equipment, PVPV technicians will measure panel performance under a variety of conditions, taking ambient temperature, wind, snow fall and light conditions into account.
“Everything that qualifies to be sold in Ontario under the feed-in-tariff program, we want to test it and make that information available in an unbiased way to the consumer,” says Luukkenon. “We’re trying to instil consumer confidence with this third-party verification.”
Data will be publicly posted at on a monthly basis.
The test facility won’t be formally launched until September, but the first of several large racking systems designed to carry the panels is already taking shape.
Eclipsall Energy, which has a 120,000-square foot manufacturing facility in Toronto, and Heliene, manufacturing out of an 18,000-square foot facility in Sault St. Marie, are among those expected to cough up the $12,000 annual fee to join the testing program.
“Obviously, the more we have the more value that brings to this project,” says Luukkenon. “Another purpose here is to provide a showcase for Ontario-made technology and manufacturing for the tens of thousands of people who pass through each year.”
Manufacturers would be wise to join, even at the risk of having their panels rank at the low end of the pack. Those who don’t join will be sending a signal to developers and consumers that they don’t want their equipment being closely inspected.
“It will sort out who’s confident in their product and who’s putting crap out there while trying to capitalize on the current situation,” says Luukkenon.
And nobody, when they’re dishing out tens of thousands of dollars, wants to purchase crap.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org