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SolarShare joins others in Ontario for community green energy

Jul 31, 2012

Debates over land-use, energy prices and the effectives of renewable energy have been a challenge for Ontario’s Green Energy Act and Feed-in-Tariff program. With these struggles at the forefront of green energy news, an innovation developed by Ontario citizens to engage more communities in renewable energy, the community power co-operative, has been overshadowed despite their increasing popularity. 

“The FIT program has been controversial because people don’t feel they’re taking part in the current energy transition,” says Deb Doncaster, head of the Community Power Fund.  “Co-ops are attractive because every community can now have a direct economic stake in local projects, and thus in the program as a whole.”

Locally, SolarShare has been trying to achieve this goal and has already attracted 268 members and built $4 million in solar PV projects.

One member and co-op volunteer states, “For me, the decision to become a SolarShare member was an easy one. It was an opportunity to invest in something harmonious with my values. I am not only supporting local, clean solar energy projects, but also job creation and a reconceptualization of community involvement in the production of energy.

Under the new rules of the Feed-in Tariff Program (“FIT 2.0”), many believe that community power co-operatives like SolarShare could be the key to gaining wider support for green energy in Ontario. These rules prioritize community projects through a “points” system and “set-aside” 100MW of grid capacity for renewable energy projects that are majority owned by co-ops and aboriginal communities. Community power co-operatives must also have 50 local landowners among their members (35 for smaller projects).

However, with scarce resources, a steep learning curve and a lack of support, community power co-ops were nervous about meeting this set-aside. SolarShare has faced many hurdles along the way, including the extensive legal documentation required between the co-op and roof hosts, delays from regulatory systems, securing sites and FIT contracts, and raising community bond investment. Overall SolarShare is optimistic, but its success has been years in the making and there are still challenges yet. Regulatory approval to sell more than $1,000 per member per year is still delayed, which significantly slows the organization’s ability to scale up quickly.

Last week, SolarShare and 24 other community power co-ops and advocates agreed to form the Federation of Community Power Co-operatives (FCPC) to help new and emerging co-ops navigate the revised FIT program and to help make green energy work for Ontario citizens by building the community power movement.

After six months of negotiations, the FCPC meeting and decision came only a week after the Minister of Energy, Chris Bentley, issued a directive to the Ontario Power Authority to restart the FIT program with a stronger role for co-ops.

“One of the seven co-op principles is co-operation amongst co-operatives,” says Peter Cameron of the Ontario Co-operative Association. “This Federation is a great example of co-ops working together – a wonderful thing to see in the International Year of Co-operatives.”

By forming a Federation, community power co-ops will have a common voice to negotiate with government and private developers. Co-ops will also work together and share their resources, tools and knowledge to help the sector meet its community power set-aside.

Key issues for the FCPC will include clarifying the new FIT 2.0 rules for community power, assisting new and existing to develop their projects and ensure a high standard of quality in community power co-ops. The Federation also wants to engage more Ontario citizens in green energy through becoming members of community power co-operatives.

Years of experience and expertise puts SolarShare in a position to support other renewable energy co-operatives across the province through participation in the federation.

The FCPC is eager to help other co-ops and proponents of renewable power, and encourages them to join the conversation. “Community power has a great future if we work together to make it happen,” Doncaster says. The Federation plans to meet again in the Fall when the FIT 2.0 rules are finalized.