Investing in community-owned solar power "really pays off." So says Ambrose Raftis, board chair of Green Timiskaming, a renewable energy co-op north of Sudbury near the Quebec border.
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The payoff comes in a variety of inspiring ways.
Raftis, like many people in the north, is concerned about the faltering local economy, loss of farmers and what he calls "youth out-migration." And of course he's worried about climate change. Renewable energy is one solution to all these problems.
He helped to incorporate GT as a non-profit organization in 2009. Shortly after, the group applied to develop 20 solar-energy projects under Ontario's feed-in-tariff program, which guarantees renewable developers a fair price for their power for 20 years. In the end, the province offered GT 10 FIT contracts, nine for ground-mounted and one for roof-mounted solar.
After receiving the FIT contracts, GT realized it couldn't raise enough capital to develop the projects by itself. So it turned to SolarShare, a much larger Toronto-based renewables co-op with more than $30 million in assets. On March 30, the two groups announced they would amalgamate to develop the solar systems. GT initially planned to have them 51 per cent community-owned, but the merger means this figure will rise to 100 per cent, with SolarShare owning and maintaining the projects. (Bullfrog Power also provided financial support.)
"SolarShare offers Ontarians the opportunity to invest in solar by purchasing a bond that pays five or six per cent annually," Raftis says. "So people's energy dollars stay in the community."
Local ownership is crucial because it creates a renewable-energy constituency — a block of citizens who will defend renewables if they meet opposition, as happened with wind power in southern Ontario. "When people join our co-op, they have a stake in solar — so they pay attention to it and vote for parties that support it," Raftis says.
Because much land in northeastern Ontario is poor for growing crops, many farmers there are struggling. GT/SolarShare will install photovoltaic cells on their property for 20 years and support them in two ways: by providing immediate revenue through lease payments and offering more down the road. "Farmers can leverage this future money to get credit from the bank and grow their operations," Raftis says. "Lenders like the fact the farmers now have a guaranteed income for two decades."
Raftis believes local generation projects serve a number of ends. In addition to creating electricity, they create a sense of agency. "Once you do community power, local people feel able to do other projects," he says. He wants to see an "eco-village" established in Timiskaming, in which northerners provide not only their own power but also food, water and housing. Drawing on micro-grids and greenhouses, the village would demonstrate that rural areas can thrive in the new economy. It would show that "we don't need Chinese or Alberta imports to feed ourselves or heat our homes. In fact, through this self-sustaining model we can build a higher quality lifestyle while consuming fewer resources."
Raftis's vision is ultimately about changing the nature of the economy. He wants it centred on sharing, "So we can get our joy in life not from shopping but from sharing with friends and neighbours."