If you live in the Okanagan or Kootenays and dream of putting solar panels on your roof, FortisBC has a proposition for you.
The private utility is proposing to build a 240-kilowatt solar array north of Kelowna — and is inviting its 170,000 electricity customers to rent any number of the 720 new solar panels.
If this pilot project moves forward (the B.C. Utilities Commission will decide by the end of the year), the Ellison Community Solar project will be the province’s first solar facility owned and operated by a utility. If approved, it could be built by the end of 2018.
The company says panel renters will have the satisfaction of supporting solar energy, and at the same time, receive the energy output as a credit on their monthly electricity bills. This without the work of putting panels up on the roof.
But for this solar business model to be a success, FortisBC will not only need to get customers to rent the panels, they will need to confront an awkward question that has emerged during the public comment segment of the BCUC regulatory process that ended last Thursday.
Why is the utility building a solar project in the first place?
Tough Questions About Need for More Power in B.C.
On paper, FortisBC does not appear to need a solar farm.
In its recent filings to the regulator, the company confirmed that the project is not a required energy resource within its existing “resource stack;” FortisBC is in fact viewing the project in isolation of its long-term electric resource plan, “since the energy it will produce is not required to meet customer load.”
They concede the project “would not be built” if it had to follow FBC’s long term plan criteria used to select the optimal set of resources to meet FBC’s load. In other words, if they needed new generation to meet a deficiency in their generation, this project would not be a candidate to fill the void.
So why build new generation then?
FortisBC spokesperson Nicole Bogdanovic says the project is about providing choice. Beginning in 2015 the company reached out and surveyed their customers, and found a strong interest in solar energy.
“People see solar as something they want to get involved in, and they want to grow this industry for a variety of reasons. We want to be there to help them.”
A news release from FortisBC adds that the project will enable the company to gather important information on the installation, operation, and maintenance of community solar arrays.
“This will allow us to make decisions about the potential to expand this program.”
Industrial Users Come out Swinging
The industrial users group (IUG) of FortisBC have come out swinging against the project — their submission to the regulator asks that the BCUC reject the project.
Among many reasons for this they say there is no evidence that any greenhouse gas emission reductions or any other environmental benefits will result from the project.
That despite the likely assumption among solar renters that the opposite is true.
“FortisBC should not be permitted to rely on this view of customers that a solar facility provides environmental benefits when it may not, and in the absence of need for new resources, probably does not.”
When FortisBC was pressed to provide numbers on the environmental benefits of the project [e.g., projected greenhouse gas emission reductions], spokesperson Bogdanovic offered the following: “The reality is, most of our energy needs are met through hydro, so if this [project] offsets greenhouse gases, I think it’s more of a philosophical decision for our customers that feel solar is a cleaner energy source and a thing that we are developing in B.C.”
Acceptable Risk and Future Need
In its September 28 submission to the regulator, the industrial users group (which did not respond to calls for an interview) takes issue with the fact that all FortisBC ratepayers must ultimately bear the risk of a project the utility admits it does not need.
In the event that the revenue from the rental customers does not cover the cost of the project, writes the group, “FortisBC proposes to recover the cost of such generation from all customers.”
Tom Hackney, Policy Director at the BC Sustainable Energy Association (BCSEA), a non-profit that promotes sustainable energy, says this is true, but counters that on the basis of the project cost (around $960,000), the risk is not an issue.
“On the basis of size, there’s little price risk to ratepayers.”
Hackney’s association has joined with the Sierra Club of B.C. to jointly support the project moving forward.
“This [project] is pioneering, and in the event that this model works, it could start to have a big shift on the grid.”
Hackney explains that B.C.’s total current energy mix (including transportation, industry, etc.) is about 25 per cent electricity, primarily from hydro, and 75 per cent fossil fuels.
If there is a move in society to electrify all of its energy use, he says, we are going to have a real need for renewable energy like solar in the future.
“In that kind of future context, putting solar on your roof, or having some proxies of that [like renting solar] could start to make sense.”
Image: Solar panel installation. Photo: 100% Campaign via Flickr creative commons