Farmers want to grow power

WATERLOO, ONTARIO - Farmer Tim Barrie is ready to start growing electricity.

"I grow asparagus, I grow rhubarb," Barrie said. "Now it's solar power. It would be just another crop for me."

Township council held a meeting recently to hear public comment on a plan by Waterloo-based Arise Technologies to install a solar farm in an exhausted asparagus field along Kings Road at Highway 401.

It would be the first solar farm for Waterloo Region and one of the first in Canada.

Arise wants to rent 6.1 hectares (15.1 acres) from Barrie for 20 years and cover it with solar panels. Under a provincial solar incentive program, the power would be purchased for 42 cents a kilowatt hour, or seven times the usual rate.

In late 2006, when Arise first approached township officials with the solar farm idea, the concept was to produce up to 400 kilowatts of electricity a day at a cost of $4 million.

Today, Arise plans more solar panels to generate up to three megawatts of electricity.

That's enough to power 1,500 homes. The project will now cost $24 million.

The first phase, planned for installation in fall 2008, would generate one megawatt of power, said Jan van der Woerd, sales manager at Arise.

It's one of three solar farm projects Arise is moving ahead with this summer. Another is near Toronto, the third near Kingston.

All are going through the local approval process: happenstance will determine which ends up as the first Arise solar farm in operation.

The Ontario Power Authority has contracts signed to buy 420 megawatts of electricity from 45 solar farms. None, however, are yet in operation.

The Barrie project will use off-the-shelf solar panels and technology, van der Woerd said.

It will be built in phases to test the best way to design a solar farm for this part of the world. Some panels will track the sun, while others will be fixed and point south.

"We know it works, but before you build a 20-megawatt farm, do one megawatt," van der Woerd said. "How do you do that in Canada, in Ontario?"

Arise will use the Barrie project as a sales tool.

People already drop in and look at the solar cells Barrie put on his barn in 2006.

It's also a learning process for North Dumfries Township, which doesn't have regulations for solar farms. Neither does Waterloo Region, which sets general land use rules for cities and townships. But planning policies in Ontario, a leader in North America at promoting solar energy, now allow them on agricultural lands.

The township is looking at a site-specific amendment to its official plan, said township planner Steve Jefferson. If approved, the Barrie application will set general guidelines when other solar projects are proposed.

When customers first heard Barrie was going solar, they worried he was going to rip out all his crops. He's not. One field is affected and asparagus is already planted in the next field.

Barrie has moved asparagus out of the proposed solar field beside his house. The crop can only grow in one spot for 25 years before disease moves in. The land must sit fallow for 20 years before asparagus is replanted - exactly the length of the power sale contract.

Early on, Barrie's regular customers had a hard time understanding his solar mindset.

"At first, they were completely baffled as to why a farmer would be getting into energy," he said.

After he shows them the $32,000 solar installation on the roof - which will pay for itself in 12 years - and they see the digital meter inside, showing the power generated, they get it.

"Gas at $1.29 a litre cost is on everyone's mind," he said. "People know what a hybrid (car) is now. I think we've had a cultural shift in how we think about energy... the average person really understands."


in Year