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Sask. solar companies laying off staff amid net metering review

WATCH: Some rooftop solar companies in Saskatchewan have begun to layoff staff as they wait for the province and SaskPower to finish reviewing the net metering program.

The staff of Prairie Sun Solar in Regina are doing what they can to keep busy. Like the rest of the rooftop solar industry, they’re waiting for the province and SaskPower to unveil their new net metering program.

However, the wait is taking a toll on the small business. Prairie Sun Solar co-owner Brenden Owens said they had eight staff members when the net metering program was suspended, but they’ve had to let some go.

“Well we’ve laid off two workers. It’s tough. We have about a month and a half of work left and right now we can’t generate new sales,” Owens said.

“So it makes it tough to establish our business and a big concern for us is how the people of Saskatchewan are going to interpret this. If there’s a three or four week break how do we know if everything’s coming back?”

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SaskPower had to suspend new applications for the net metering program in mid-September after hitting their 16-megawatt customer cap far sooner than expected. The program was originally supposed to run until November 2020 if the cap wasn’t hit.

READ MORE: SaskPower shuts off net metering program due to overwhelming demand

Prairie Sun Solar is not alone in having to lay off staff. TruGreen Energy in Emerald Park employed 30 people when net metering was suspended.

“So far there’s been three that have been laid off and there’s probably going to be another three to four coming up here shortly, and probably another round after that unfortunately,” CEO Miguel Catellier said.

He added if there’s an announcement in the next couple of weeks some employees may be able to be brought back.

Environment Minister Dustin Duncan previously said they hope to have a new program in place by the end of October.

On August 31, SaskPower said their net metering capacity was at 11.49 megawatts. They said the following weeks saw a major surge in applications.

NDP caucus chair Trent Wotherspoon said the province is squandering a burgeoning industry with this shutdown.

“We’ve just scratched the surface on the potential of this industry. Instead of allowing that to grow, flourish and supporting that, this government has shut the door and cost us jobs,” Wotherspoon said.

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If an announcement is delayed, Catellier worries about solar talent leaving Saskatchewan for greener pastures.

“There aren’t people that have a bunch of experience in solar, and so the investment in new people is extensive. You’re getting them certified, you’re getting them trained, so to see people having to let go of people that just got trained up, it’s not going to be easy to get that back again,” Catellier said.

READ MORE: Solar industry rallies in Regina against SaskPower announcement

At Prairie Sun Solar, Owens feels like the clock may be ticking if they can’t get back to work soon.

“If we don’t have good news here in the future we’re going to have to start laying off some management and move in another direction. If we don’t have a program to work towards, obviously there’s nothing we can do,” Owens said.

“This is all we do. Solar is every bit of our job, our livelihood. That’s how I feed my family. That’s how we survive.”

Net metering consultation

When Minister Duncan announced it would be “weeks not months” before a new net metering program is in place, he said the province would consult the solar industry on what they think should be next.

“I’ve personally met with representation from the solar industry last week. They’ve put forward I think some ideas that we’re going to see whether or not we can incorporate so we will be working closely with the industry,” Duncan said on Sept. 23.

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Global News contacted a dozen solar companies across the province, and only TruGreen has had contact with the ministry since then. Others have written emails, but said they did not receive a reply. None had heard about other meetings.

Duncan’s chief of staff paid TruGreen a visit and asked questions about what they think is the best way forward and the best way for the industry to be viable, according to Catellier.

Both Catellier and Owens said one-to-one net metering is the best way forward. This is a system where solar customers receive equal bill credit for what they produce. So if you make $10 worth of power, that’s your credit.

READ MORE: SaskPower residential solar incentives likely to be revised sooner than expected

“We were also hearing that there may have been a decision made in principle. So we’re hoping that — we were actually recommending that even though we want to get back to work- we were recommending make sure you don’t make a decision before consulting us. We need to talk about what the industry needs in order to continue to sustain itself,” Catellier said.

Owens said Prairie Sun Solar reached out to the environment ministry immediately following Duncan’s Sept. 23 announcement. He said all they’ve heard back is the receipt the email was received.

“It makes me worried they’re not consulting with industry. That’s a big part of the factor to make the program work. You need to consult with industry as well as the utility. You need to have a dialogue to make things successful,” Owens said.

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This has the provincial opposition calling on the government to be more proactive in contacting solar companies.

“I find it astounding that the minister and the premier and the Sask. Party haven’t urgently brought together the stakeholders, the industry and the workers to get this back on track,” Wotherspoon said.

Global News requested a list of companies the province has consulted so far. A spokesperson said they have met with several solar companies and other industry representatives. The meetings are ongoing, with “several more taking place later this week.”

The province adds they hope to set a date “very soon” to announce the results of their net metering review.