Wind, Solar Have Future Here

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

320 people already employed in growing sector

By Dave Hall, The Windsor Star

Despite the closure of three local wind and solar companies in the past eight months, two local officials believe there's still a future for the renewable energy sector in this region.

"Absolutely, and you only have to look as far as the ones that are successful to see that's true," said Mayor Eddie Francis.

Francis said that companies such as CS Wind, Unconquered Sun Solar Technologies and OYA Solar have been able to weather the industry uncertainties by diversifying both their product offerings and their customer base.

Collectively, those three and a couple of smaller companies employ about 320 people.

Francis also said that two renewable energy announcements he expects will be made over the next 60 to 90 days will be a further indication that the sector is on solid footing locally.

While unwilling to disclose any details, Francis said the projects won't face the same issues that have caused companies such as Siliken SA, Windtronics and Uni-Solar to close their doors, taking 190 actual jobs with them and the promise of as many as 300 more over time.

Political uncertainty, delays by the Ontario Power Authority in approving contracts and problems hooking up to Ontario's outdated power grid are mainly cited as reasons for a slowdown in both sales and manufacturing opportunities across the sector.

Rakesh Naidu, director of business attraction for the WindsorEssex Economic Development Corporation and the agency's lead on renewable energy, said that once the OPA starts releasing more projects and cutting approval times, manufacturing will start to flow again.

"There's volume in the pipeline, and when it's released there will be quite a bit of business," said Naidu. "There were so many players in the game that it's not surprising some didn't survive.

"The strong ones who had a diversified customer base and a solid product portfolio are the ones who will reap the long-term benefits," said Naidu.

But Patrick Persichilli, director of administration for CS Wind, said the industry is still facing significant issues and challenges.

"There's still a holding pattern on the manufacturing side until contracts are released, and the political climate on both sides of the border is still tenuous," said Persichilli. "I think people are underestimating the potential impact of the U.S. elections on the industry, moving forward, and we still have a minority government in Ontario, so we're not out of the woods here yet, either. The industry is not yet at the point where it can sit on inventory, and that's a concern, particularly on the solar side."

Persichilli also cited a recently launched Health Canada study into the health effects of wind turbines.

"To us, Health Canada is injecting itself into politics," said Persichilli. "There's enough empirical data from all jurisdictions across the world to indicate that a fan doesn't cause cancer.

"We believe this study is being done as a result of mounting pressure from some of the Conservative party's important ridings and constituencies," Persichilli said.

Naidu also said that for many companies launching in a fledgling industry it's difficult to develop long-term business cases during four-year political cycles.

"The industry isn't yet at the point of no return, and I think the entire sector is waiting to see what happens in the U.S. in November," he said. "If the same policies survive past the U.S. elections, I think you'll see many more project and manufacturing opportunities open up, which will also benefit Canadian suppliers."

Francis agreed, saying that uncertainty over the Green Energy Act's feed-in tariff rules and an outdated provincewide energy grid prevented many potential customers from hooking their systems up to the grid, thus choking off sales.

"These companies need a stable environment in which to do business and attract clients, and changing the rules didn't afford them that stability. And the OPA has been very slow in approving new contracts because of problems connecting to the grid. It's an outdated system which can't handle an increase in two-way traffic.

"Customers couldn't connect to the grid, companies couldn't make sales, so they packed up and left," he said.

An OPA spokesman recently defended the authority's performance by pointing out that 2,000 signed FIT contracts representing more than 4,600 megawatts had gone online and 12,000 microfit projects amounting to more than 100 megawatts were in use.

"When the FIT program was launched, the province also introduced a new environmental approval process that provides a consistent set of rules and approvals across the province," said the spokesman in an email response. "Following the recently completed two-year review of the FIT program, the province has committed to further streamlining the approvals process for FIT projects to ensure that projects are not delayed."

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