Solar power payments slow to appear

OTTAWA, ONTARIO - Bill Eggertson was the first person in Eastern Ontario to install a rooftop solar system as part of the provincial government’s microFIT green energy program. But he could well be one of the last to get paid for the power he’s producing.

Eggertson, who lives on Jock Trail Road near Munster Hamlet, installed a 9.9-kilowatt solar system on the roof of his thoroughly retrofitted 3,500-square-foot house last winter. It has been pumping electricity into the grid since March 2010.

But due to a series of delays on the part of Hydro Ottawa, he has yet to see a dollar of the lucrative payments microFIT participants are supposed to receive. He calculates he’s owed about $8,000 and counting.

Meanwhile, he’s been paying interest on the $80,000 loan he took out to install the solar system.

“I can afford the bank loan,” he says. “But it speaks to the fact that Hydro Ottawa didn’t know what they were doing.”

Hydro Ottawa acknowledges it was slow to adjust to the demands imposed by the microFIT program, which offers small-scale rooftop solar generators like Eggertson 80.2 cents for every kilowatt-hour of power they produce in guaranteed 20-year contracts.

But it says it has overcome the growing pains, and expects to start issuing cheques by the end of the month to microFIT customers within its jurisdiction.

“We do apologize for taking a little bit longer than we initially anticipated,” says Hydro Ottawa spokesman Brian McGregor, who admits the utility had “a few fits and starts” adjusting to the new program.

“We’ve worked absolutely as quickly as we can to get those technical challenges overcome,” says McGregor. But with the billing system now automated, microFIT customers will get statements and payments every two months going forward, he says. “There should be no further delay.”

The response to the microFIT program — aimed at encouraging renewable power projects with generating capacities of 10 kilowatts or less — has been overwhelming. Lured by lucrative payments and lengthy contracts, more than 24,000 people have submitted applications since September 2009.

As of January 5, the Ontario Power Authority OPA, which administers the program, had signed 2,619 contracts with microFIT suppliers, and made conditional offers to a further 18,176. Almost all are rooftop solar systems.

With up to 80 new applications every day creating a three-month delay in processing applications, demand shows no sign of abating.

In Hydro Ottawa’s billing territory, 442 have applied to operate microFIT projects, and 48 are already producing electricity.

Eggertson was quick to sign on. He has worked in the renewable energy field since 1985 and is currently on sabbatical from his job as executive director of the Canadian Association for Renewable Energies.

He also lives in one of Canada’s most energy-efficient homes. With a few more tweaks, it could soon be removing more carbon from the atmosphere than he and his family emit from energy use.

Given Eggertson’s interests and values, the microFIT program was a natural. But he admits the financial rewards were also an attraction. “My wife basically hit me across the face and said, ‘If we can make this much money, don’t be an idiot — do it’.”

Over the next 20 years, Eggertson expects his rooftop system to generate revenues of $250,000. “It’s roughly $15,000 revenue I get per year, and it’s about a seven-year payback,” he says.

He submitted his application in November 2009 and received provincial approval from the OPA in January 2010. The full system was installed by mid-February.

That’s when things went sour.

First, Hydro Ottawa informed him it had forgotten to order bi-directional meters, which are needed to record his system’s power production. It took a month, and a few rants from Eggertson, for the utility to locate one.

As well, Hydro Ottawa initially told Eggertson his fully installed system didn’t quality for connection because it had no procedure for his home’s 400-amp electrical service. “I facetiously said, ‘take the 200-amp procedure and multiply it by two’,” Eggertson recalls.

Then Measurement Canada, which approves the configuration of electrical meters, ruled that rooftop solar systems had to be connected in parallel. Eggertson had used a series connection, so he had to spend a further $1,500 to comply.

With those hurdles finally overcome, his system started feeding power into the grid. That’s when Hydro Ottawa informed him it had no process for paying people.

For more than a century, Hydro Ottawa has been sending electricity to customers and billing them for it. With microFIT, “we’re sort of reversing the program,” says McGregor. “It’s a brand new way of operating, and it does present some challenges.

Eggertson says Hydro Ottawa is the only local distribution company in Ontario where the sort of delays he has endured have occurred. Only four of the 48 local microFIT participants have received any payments, he says.

It’s not even Hydro Ottawa’s money, Eggertson points out. “They’re getting the money from OPA. All they’re doing is taking my power and feeding it into the grid.”

Eggertson knows the proverbial cheque will soon be in the mail, so getting paid isn’t really the issue. Rather, it raises questions about Hydro Ottawa’s competence, he says.

“Why would you not order meters when you know there’s a program coming that will require bi-directional meters? If you knew you were going to end up paying, wouldn’t you say to your accounting people, ‘Develop a software program that allows you to send money to people’?”

Hydro Ottawa’s McGregor defends the utility’s handling of the transition to microFIT payments. “We think we’ve done a good job at accommodating to this new system, which is a drastic change from how we’ve operated from Day 1.”



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