Cold Canada emerges as a solar hot spot

Cloudy skies haven’t stopped Ontario, or Germany for that matter, from switching to solar

Think of solar power, and deserts or at least hot, dry places spring to mind. Yet cold Canada has emerged as a world leader in solar energy.

Canada might not immediately spring to mind as the place to locate huge arrays of photovoltaic (PV) panels, but the country has more to recommend itself as a solar-power producer than one might assume.

In the first place, Canada has more sunshine than it is given credit for, and in southern Ontario province, where most of Canada’s PV systems are concentrated, there is certainly more sunshine than in Germany, the world’s largest PV market. The cooler temperatures can also help to improve the performance of the PV panels since their efficiency tends to decline once they exceed a certain surface temperature.

Even winter snow need not be too big a problem; panels can be placed at steep angles or mounted on moveable tracking systems.

Ontario turns its back on coal

But as in Germany, the driving force behind solar and renewables in Ontario is not nature but legislators, who are especially keen to diversify the province’s energy mix and to limit carbon emissions. Indeed, if all goes to plan, Ontario will close the last of its coal-fired power plants by the end of this year, making it the first industrial region in North America to eliminate coal as a source of electricity generation.

Solar still accounts for only a tiny proportion of Ontario’s energy mix, but it looks increasingly like an energy source with a future. Ontario legislators took a decisive step in 2009, when they passed the Green Energy Act, establishing “feed-in tariffs” (FiT) to encourage investment in energy from renewable resources.

Under the FiT program, all grid-connected solar systems receive compensation. The result has been a boom in solar systems of all sizes, from large-scale farms to residential rooftop installations. Over 11,000 “micro” PV projects of less than 10kW were installed in Ontario in 2011, representing 36 percent of the market.

Grid parity in a decade

To skeptics who question how much longer Ontario can afford incentives for solar, advocates retort that PV is already competitive with the cost of peak power and that developments in solar-power technology mean grid parity and may be little more than a decade away.

The Ontario Power Authority reviewed the FiT program in 2012, cutting solar FiTs across all system sizes by 10-32% in reaction to the global decline in PV panel and system pricing. Reduction of tariffs is another indicator that solar is closer to being competitive with traditional energy sources in the absence of incentives.

Perhaps even more telling is the fact that North America’s shale gas boom shows every sign of derailing plans for new nuclear plants in Ontario while leaving solar energy unscathed.

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About the author

Jonas Hughes

I am a writer and editor in the Corporate Communications department of ABB. I have worked as a journalist and communicator in Switzerland, Britain, North America and South Africa, and am interested in how technology affects the lives of ordinary people.
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