Dozens of stakeholders, politicians, users and prospective users rallied behind the Saskatchewan solar power industry on Saturday afternoon.
The protest outside SkyFire Energy’s new Regina office came just days after SaskPower announced the closure of its solar energy net metering program with very little notice to industry.
SkyFire Energy vice-president of finance Tim Schulhauser said the event was originally intended to be a solar energy open house but was reorganized into a rally after the announcement.
“We are not allowed to promote solar anymore, because we’re not allowed to install solar which means our company is effectively out of business.”
SaskPower’s current metering program was launched in November 2018. The program allows those with privately owned solar systems to connect to the SaskPower energy grid.
Customers can generate power for their own use or receive a credit that can be used against their power bill at times of low solar activity. The program also involved a government-issued rebate for solar installations of up to 20 per cent.
“People want net metering, with or without a rebate, and it’s been cancelled, with one day’s notice, affecting an industry of 500 people,”
SaskPower capped the program at 16-megawatts of generation capacity and said they would take applications until that cap was hit or until November 2021.
What industry stakeholders say they weren’t told, however, was that all solar power access to the grid would be suspended as well. SaskPower announced the program had hit the cap on Thursday.
“There was no advance notice that the net metering — the ability to connect to the grid — would be shut down. We as an industry learned that on Wednesday this week. On Thursday it was shut down,” said Schulhauser. “This has all happened very fast.”
Schulhauser said that there are over 50 solar energy companies in Saskatchewan employing over 500 people. The closure of the net metering program, he said, puts all of their jobs in jeopardy.
“Unfortunately people will start to be laid off soon. I expect it will be over 500 people eventually. I expect salespeople will be the first to be laid off. Then you’ve got project managers, installers, labourers. There’s admin staff.”
He also says a lot of specialized, on-the-job training could be lost if electricians are out of work for the long-term.
“When it comes to photovoltaic systems, you don’t learn a lot of that in your initial training,” Schulhauser said. “To me it’s ironic that the unprecedented demand for the program is what caused it to shut down early. The demand had shown that people want it in Saskatchewan and I think it’s important to realize that the people of Saskatchewan own the utility.”
For their part, SaskPower said on Thursday that a review of the cost of net metering is needed before the program can continue.
“If we were to just run the program until 2025, it would require a seven per cent rate increase for customers,” SaskPower spokesperson Joel Cherry told Global News on Thursday.
“Net metering users are able to take advantage of the grid, they’re still reliant on our distribution network but they aren’t necessarily paying for them. That burden falls on all of our other ratepayers.”
Cherry also said net metering is not the most efficient way to add renewable energy to the grid.
“We’re investing in larger-scale solar projects and other renewable projects such as wind.”
The province has announced intentions to add 60 MW to the grid by 2021. But Schulhauser says larger-scale projects won’t necessarily benefit Saskatchewan companies.
“A lot of the solar companies here are smaller. The bids are pretty sophisticated. That market is really going to Ontario, the U.S. and international companies. And 60 MW is actually quite small, it’s a very low target. A couple weeks ago there was an approximately 600 MW project approved in Alberta.”
On Friday the Saskatchewan Government issued a statement on the matter, saying they’re “pleased with the uptake that SaskPower’s net metering program has generated, leading the program to reaching its cap earlier than anticipated by SaskPower.”
The statement goes on to say the government’s priority is to “strike a balance” between the needs of customers and the finances of SaskPower and its ratepayers. It said Energy Minister Dustin Duncan will provide an update to the situation on Monday.
Politicians in attendance
The rally was also attended by representatives from all levels of government. Regina-Wascana MP Ralph Goodale, Regina Rosemont MLA Trent Wotherspoon, and Regina Ward 6 city Coun. Joel Murray all attended and voiced support.
“In 2019, not being able to connect a solar panel to the grid is a fundamental issue, we’re the only jurisdiction in North America where that’s not the case,” Murray said.
“Two years ago as a city council we unanimously passed a motion that we would become a renewable city by 2050. Right now this is inhibiting an industry we’re gonna need to reach those goals.”
Prospective buyers out of luck
Wascana Solar Co-operative president Josh Campbell attended the rally.
The 103 member co-op offers programs that combine participants’ purchasing power to benefit from solar energy at lower prices. He called the latest projects the co-op has been working “big steps” for the organization, and said they’ve now been thrust into limbo.
“We’re questioning whether in the new year we’re going to be able to survive as a co-op because of this decision.”
Susan Sutherland and her husband were in the final stages of purchasing a solar power system when the SaskPower announcement was made.
“We were definitely interested in using solar panels to reduce cost and be a bit more environmentally friendly. We have a couple of quotes and were within a day or two of putting the application in,” she said.
“I can understand the rebates going away if the program is full. But to not even allow connections to the grid anymore? I just can’t understand that at all.”
Sutherland called the outcome “very disappointing” and hopes the provincial government reconsiders delaying the program.
“It’s a growing industry in the province and this is one of the best places in the country for solar production. It would certainly be in line with a lot of the green initiatives they say they’re interested in, so I certainly hope they reconsider for sure.”