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This article was published 9/3/2017 (1120 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Solar energy enthusiasts gathered in Winnipeg on Thursday to shed some light on something that didn't really exist here a year ago — a market for solar energy in Manitoba.
The Manitoba Environmental Industries Association, which organized the event, hopes the Energy Summit becomes an annual event.
How long the sun shines on the industry may depend on whether Manitoba Hydro continues offering its $1-per-watt incentive on solar installations announced last April that has jump-started the influx of more solar installations in the province.
"I don't want to give Manitoba Hydro all the credit," one participant said, but the 38 new solar installations since the incentive was announced and the 60 expected in the coming fiscal year is a massive increase for Manitoba.
A very low cost for electricity in Manitoba — the second lowest in North America — is typically cited as the main reason for the lag in solar energy generation in Manitoba.
"Having said that, we are entering a phase where the cost of electricity is going up that will make renewable technology more cost effective. We may be lagging behind other jurisdictions but, absolutely, the next five-to-10 years will be great," said Margo Shaw, the association's executive director.
For that to come true she believes there will have to be more education on the technology, the environmental underpinnings and the economics behind solar.
"The incentive is a good first step but education is key," Shaw said. "Not only for the decision-makers but also for the general populace to make sure we are all pushing for the same kind of things."
Alternative energy advocates Andea Kraj, president of CORE Renewable Energy and Eric Bibeau, associate professor in the mechanical engineering department at the University of Manitoba who spoke at the Energy Summit, are big proponents of deploying the right kind of alternative energy in the right situation.
Bibeau is working with Sagkeeng First Nation to install a 25-kilowatt hydrokinetic power-generation system on the Winnipeg River. His research focus is on innovative renewable energy technologies for distributed applications.
Manitoba imposes a large amount of red tape that is a deterrent to more alternative energy applications in the province, Bibeau said.
Advocates are hopeful the program, which is less than a year old, will only get better.
Justin Phillips, the president of Sycamore Energy and its re-branded local operation, Solar Manitoba, said the industry as well as the province are just getting past the learning stage.
"These are exciting times," he said. "The process has really sped up. The learning curve is at least eight or nine months. Now we are getting approvals very quickly."
His company just broke ground on a 70-kilowatt project with approximately 260 solar panels on a farm near Rivers that will be one of the largest in the province.
Jana Brunel, who heads up Manitoba Hydro's emerging energy technologies work, said the incentive program is scheduled to run until the spring of 2018. She said there is lots of momentum and more interest than was originally imagined.
"The early adopters were the year-one participants, she said. "That's now shifting to people who would not have done it without the incentive and who are encouraged by word of mouth. Those are motivating factors as well as the unknown of potential rate increases."
The uncertainty about rate increases was not part of the equation a year ago when the solar incentive was announced.
Since then, Hydro has announced costs for its Keeyask generating station have jumped by $900 million, and credit-rating agencies have expressed concern about the corporation's mounting debt. Hydro has previously warned it will ask the Public Utilities Board for double-digit rate increases for the next few years.
But as much as there is substantial new interest in solar, Brunel points out it only represents a tiny portion of the overall energy sector in Manitoba.
"It is exciting nonetheless," she said.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.