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Lights out on solar power

PUB, Hydro refuse to pay for experts at hearing

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A rendering of the Keeyask generating station.

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A rendering of the Keeyask generating station.

The Manitoba Metis Federation was prevented from getting solar power onto the agenda of a hearing looking into alternatives to building two northern mega-dams.

In September, the MMF asked the Public Utilities Board if it could call evidence on "community power opportunities" during its review of Manitoba Hydro's plan to build the Keeyask and Conawapa generating stations and a new transmission line to the United States, documents show.

The MMF's plan also included calling experts from Minnesota and Ontario, where community power opportunities, also known as customer-driven generation, are established.

Community power is a small energy project, such as a wind farm or solar field, that is developed and controlled, in full or in part, by residents of a community much like a co-operative. Community power proponents can include residents, farmer groups, co-ops, First Nations, municipalities and other institutions looking to develop energy projects that reduce their use of power drawn from the grid or fossil fuels.

But MMF lawyer Jessica Saunders said both Hydro and the PUB shot the idea down.

'We live in a province of water, with lots of water... The people of Manitoba expect us to harness that power and turn it into good jobs and lower rates and system reliability'

-- Hydro Minister Stan Struthers

"Inadequate consultation with my client and a failure to place the need of ratepayers at the forefront may leave my client and others to pursue other options to meeting their electricity needs," she said Friday. "This is going to be a reality in the next 10 to 20 years. The sooner Manitoba Hydro takes the blinders off, the better."

The PUB said the MMF could provide a presentation to the panel on community power, but the utility wouldn't pay for experts to appear at the hearing.

Hydro said it is evaluating various power-supply options, including community power -- and that it does not affect the PUB review.

The MMF is weighing if it has the funds and expertise to make a credible pitch on its own, Saunders said.

The PUB is in the middle of a three-month review looking at whether Hydro's plan to build the two dams and transmission line makes economic sense.

Hydro submitted 15 options for the panel to consider, including a gas-generation plant that would make electricity in place of Conawapa, and increased conservation efforts. It didn't suggest more wind farms or solar power.

"We live in a province of water, with lots of water, and that's not going to change any time soon," Hydro Minister Stan Struthers said.

"The people of Manitoba expect us to harness that power and turn it into good jobs and lower rates and system reliability. It just makes very good environmental sense to use that water."

While the idea of adding solar power to Manitoba's energy mix -- to supplement hydro power -- is not new, it hasn't been taken seriously. That's partly because current electricity rates are relatively low compared with other provinces and states.

"When you have a monopoly, then the drive for creativity in terms of approaches is simply not there," said Daniel Lepp-Friesen, co-ordinator of 50 by '30, an environmental group whose goal is to see 50 per cent of the province's energy supply come from renewable sources by 2030.

"There is no one pushing on you, so if the status quo works, stick with it."

Lepp-Friesen has spoken to the PUB about the benefit of alternative energy and energy conservation, and goals to lower natural gas and petroleum consumption.

"The world, as far as solar goes, has passed us by," added Diane Bastiaanssen, vice-president of Solar Solutions Inc., a Winnipeg designer and manufacturer of solar electric systems.

"It's not new technology. It's been around long enough. It's quite capable of doing the job. It's now more so about overcoming mindsets more than anything."

Bastiaanssen said Hydro is the biggest critic of solar power. "It's not looking at the biggest picture," Bastiaanssen said. "It's only looking at its corporate interests."

An independent report done for Hydro for the PUB review says while it is too expensive now, the province should seriously look at solar power in the future as the cost of solar photovoltaic panels and batteries drops. Hydro's own projection says the installed cost for solar equipment will decrease by 50 per cent by 2020 -- a year before the proposed Keeyask dam is to be in service.

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2014 A4

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