Manitoba has among the lowest electricity prices in the world. That, along with our northern latitude, makes it perhaps one of the toughest markets in the world to crack for solar energy providers.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/6/2015 (2234 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Manitoba has among the lowest electricity prices in the world. That, along with our northern latitude, makes it perhaps one of the toughest markets in the world to crack for solar energy providers.

Justin Phillips and Alex Stuart knew they would have a challenge selling their solar power solutions when they formed Sycamore Energy in 2009 in Winnipeg. But they were committed to being part of the industry because of solar power's contributions to solving climate change, energy security and universal access to power.

Recently, Sycamore partnered with NRG Energy Inc. the $15.9-billion U.S. energy giant, to become the Canadian distributor of the Solar Street Charge, a solar mobile-charging station.

It recently installed the first one in Canada located, fittingly enough, in the middle of the country at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers at The Forks.

"We're really happy about these units because it allows us to sell something in Canada," said Phillips.

The units are powered by three 20-watt panels that need just four hours of daylight to keep the station charged. Up to six electronic mobile devices can be charged at one time. Phillips said they will do the job just as fast as a conventional wall socket.

The Forks is an ideal locale for Sycamore's demonstration of the Street Charge. The Forks has embarked on a green initiative of its own called Target Zero with a goal to reduce carbon emissions at The Forks to as close to zero as possible.

"We are working toward reducing our impact on the Earth, and this is one more innovation that gets us closer," said Paul Jordan, CEO of The Forks. "People are always looking for places to plug in their devices, and now they can while using solar energy."

NRG is the largest independent power producer in the U.S., with 47,000 megawatts of generation capacity. Last year, it acquired Goal Zero, a small company that makes portable solar and charging products including the Street Charge.

The units proved their value in the days after hurricane Sandy when power was out for days in many parts of New York City. AT&T could provide Wi-Fi but many people couldn't charge their devices to get online. So a number of Street Charge stations were installed in New York and were a hit.

Kise Zettel, a spokeswoman for NRG in Houston, said even though the company has massive generation capacity (including thermal and nuclear generation) it takes its corporate-responsibility issues seriously including how it leaves the world for future generations. It is also one of the larger solar energy generators in the U.S.

"We wanted to strategically distribute these solar chargers not just in the U.S but worldwide," Zettel said. "Sycamore is very much aligned with the vision we have at our company. So they are a great partner for us."

Phillips is no stranger to the challenges of convincing Canadian customers to use alternative energy. In a past life, he also worked in the wind industry.

But he readily acknowledges that with electricity costs at about seven cents per kilowatt hour (kWh), it would take most users in Manitoba about 15 years to pay for a solar installation.

In Jamaica, where Sycamore has recently completed an installation at a resort, electrical costs are as high as 65 cents per kWh.

Jane Kidd-Hatscher, a spokeswoman for Manitoba Hydro, said there is not a lot of solar power generation in the province, but the utility will pay market rates for excess solar generation back onto the grid.

But even Phillips doesn't expect a lot of that to happen any time soon.

Meanwhile, he hopes the Street Charge units will catch on. So far, there are only 100 of them throughout the world. Sycamore, which has distribution rights for the units across Canada, has sold a couple of them to the downtown business improvement zone in London, Ont., that will go up next week.

Phillips envisions them being ideal at high-traffic bus stops and high-traffic pedestrian areas.

"The possibilities are endless," he said. "But it would be great to get a quick charge while waiting for the bus for that 25-minute ride home."

The units sell for $13,000 each but the design creates possibilities for corporate messaging or commercial advertising that could bring in as much as $1,000 per month.

Martin Cash

Martin Cash

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.

   Read full biography