• Protecting Water and Farmland in Simcoe County

Farming the Sun

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Nov 20th, 2010
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Four-part series on solar energy and how local farmers are getting onboard
Part 1: Shiny new crop
By MARG. BRUINEMAN, BARRIE EXAMINER November 18 2010
Ken O’Brian marvels at the two sets of solar panels newly installed on his property just outside of Midhurst.
Mounted on a swivelling axis, they’re programmed to follow the sun, absorbing a maximum amount of its rays. The collected energy, clean and green, is then sold back to the province’s hydro grid for 80.2 cents per kWh.

The O’Brian house, probably 100 feet away, continues to be fed power from Ontario Hydro, at a cost of about 12.5 cents per kWh.
It’s a beauty, made-in-Ontario program that anyone with a bit of land, or good-sized rooftop, is eyeing.
“I tried to put them where it would take the least amount of agricultural land,” said the farmer, who refuses to retire and continues to look at his land with the eye of an entrepreneur.
Two banks of 24 panels, each measuring 12 by 40 feet, are mounted on concrete pillars at a total cost of about $90,000. The anticipated annual rate of return is 12% to 15%, meaning that they will have paid for themselves easily within 10 years, leaving the last 10 to 13 years of the 20-year contract for income generation.
If the panels are still good after 20 years, the electricity they generate can then power the house.
But it’s all still new for the O’Brians, who hadn’t yet seen a cheque from Hydro One.
“If the return is what it’s supposed to be, along with that tower over there,” says O’Brian, pointing to a satellite tower on the opposite side of the property, “that’s much better than just farming.
“The young farmer today has got to produce what people want.”
Farm income, he says, isn’t just about the traditional wheat and soybean crops, or beef or dairy farming anymore. As independent business people, farmers have to look at alternatives, like energy generation, commercial land uses, organic farming, and alternatives like goat milk.
The market, he stresses, will dictate what the farmer should consider producing. But the availability of land can also give the individual farmer the opportunity to diversify.
The odd panels, like the O’Brian project, have been popping up here and there along with the crops since spring as the result of Ontario’s Green Energy and Green Economy Act.
For Ontario farmers, the provincial program has been a bonus.
“That’s a great investment,” said Dale Litt, senior appraiser with Farm Credit Canada, an agriculture lender.
Solar and wind energy production are quickly finding their way onto farmland as a result of Ontario’s new initiatives. And that is having an impact on the value of the land.
“We’re starting to see a premium on land with turbines on it,” he said, citing an increase of wind mills on land along the shores of Lake Huron.
In its recent survey, Farm Credit Canada found that the average value of farmland in Ontario increased by 4.3% in the first half of 2010, representing the highest average increase across Canada.
In south-end Barrie, physics teacher Marty Lancaster launched the Apollo Solar Project with concerned students. They raised money to buy their first 12 panels, installed on the roof of Bear Creek Secondary School.
With additional publicity, and money gleaned from the sale of the green power to the grid, they plan to install their own electricity-generating station containing 50 panels. The students will then use the resulting income for environment-friendly initiatives throughout the school.
But it’s not just bits of land and rooftops hosting the panels. If California-based company Recurrent Energy has its way, 10 farms around Barrie and Orillia will be producing mostly solar energy within the next year or so, tying up those properties with 30-year contracts. Other companies are scoping the local landscape, searching for other farms on which to erect panels.Ontario’s plans for solar electricity production is divided into two programs: the MicroFIT (feed-in tariff ) program for smaller programs, under 10 kilowatts, and the FIT program where larger parcels of land, like farms, are used to produce 10 kilowatts of power or more.
The FIT program could mean that solar is well on its way to becoming the newest, large-yield crop. Ontario farmland has become such an important aspect of Ontario’s solar production plans that the Ontario Federation of Agriculture has been involved in price negotiations with the provincial government on behalf of farmers.
And not everyone’s happy.
The conversion of farms to energy-production facilities is not necessarily a balance that appeases everyone. And there are warnings that using large tracts of land sets irreversible precedent, removing already diminishing acres of farmland from food production.
Municipalities are also concerned, because they have been removed from the approval process, stripped of the ability to control activity on the land.
A local group, Ontario Farm Preservation, has been lobbying against the conversion of food-producing land to solar energy production.
Its founder, Bernard Pope, argues that the process is too new for immediate wholesale conversions. Committing farms to 20 or 30-year contracts, he says, is not a logical way to enter into this new crop.”All these farms have been in production for years,” he says, about the 10 local proposals.
It’s not the solar generation that offends him, he says. It’s the loss of farmland. When 60 to 100 acres is covered by nothing but solar panels it’s no longer a farm but an industry.
The leap from rooftops and corner lots to full-sized farms, he argues, is too broad. And in its haste to eliminate the use of dirty coal-fired plants by 2014, the province is making mistakes. With farming and political support, Pope hopes to encourage the Ontario Power Authority to finesse its approach to solar electricity production. At the end of the day, he hopes to see fewer farms lost to non-food producing initiatives.
– – – Electricity
Solar Power
Ontario demands as much as 24,000 megawatts of power from its power supply system. This peak usage is down 3,000 megawatts from the high three years ago. Part of the drop, 1,700 megawatts, is attributed to conservation programs. The rest is believed to be connected to the economy, fewer businesses resulting in fewer electrical demands.
Alternative energy will help offset some of the province’s peak demand.
Every week, the Ontario Power Authority receives a new bunch of applications for the production of bioenergy, solar, hydroelectric and wind power. The bulk of the 3,639 applications so far, is from solar companies, 3,203 — most of them smaller, rooftop installations.
The 99 ground-mount applications propose to produce the largest bulk of power 4,086 megawatts over the 530 megawatts that would be produced on the 565 rooftop projects.
Already, 1,376 solar contracts have been offered, with 1,112 of those already executed.
But the bulk of energy production proposed is in wind, 10,641 megawatts over solar’s 4,616.
There are 16,000 applications for solar production facilities currently proposed. If they are all approved, combined they would produce 0.1% of the province’s energy.

Part 2: Slow down, critics say
Flipping switch on power plans
By MARG. BRUINEMAN BARRIE EXAMINER November 19 2010
Opponents say the Ontario Power Authority has been pressured to move too quickly, resulting in fluid rules and even a mistake.
And they point to efforts like a 1.114-megawatt rooftop project in Barrie as an example of creating green energy with minimal environmental impact.
Earlier this year, the Ontario Power Authority acknowledged that a problem with a proposal east of London, Ont. was “missed” and the plug was pulled on plans to develop solar electricity on an 85-acre farm. It would have been Recurrent Energy’s 20th project in Ontario, 10 are in Simcoe County.
David Brochu, senior vice president of Recurrent Energy, said the rules were put into place Oct. 1, 2009 giving developers a 60-day window to make their applications. He said a clarification of the rules followed in mid-November.
Area residents objecting to the proposal argued that the property was prime agricultural land and was ineligible for solar development. Recurrent said it had planned to build on parts of the property its soil sampling had shown to be of lower quality. In August, the OPA announced the project wasn’t eligible and there was a mutual termination of the contract.
“It was something that got missed,” said Brochu.
Because so many of the proposals focus on farm land, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture has been involved in negotiations over what land can be developed for solar.
“We need to make a turn, why not use the resources Ontario has to offer,” said Don McCabe, vice president of the provincial federation, “but we have to do this with a balance.
“The reality is … we’re doing a paradigm shift right now.”
McCabe was actively negotiating rates for farmers and argued that prime farm land should be prohibited from solar development. The resulting compromise was that Class 1 and 2 cannot be touched, there’s a cap on Class 3 land, while Classes 4, 5, 6 and 7 can be developed for solar energy production.
And he argues that there should be a concerted effort to produce power where it is used. While 87% of Ontario is Crown land, the remainder is private, and that’s where both the demand and many of the solar projects are located.
McCabe suggests we look further — pointing to an estimated 825 million square feet of corporate rooftops in Toronto, which amounts to roughly 19,000 acres of prime solar panel territory.
“We need to ensure that we don’t plaster our prime agricultural land with solar panels,” he said.
Rules of engagement for Ontario’s energy-generating plans continue to evolve. Recently, advisory committees were established to help the Ontario Power Authority move forward with both its FIT and MicroFIT programs. McCabe sits on both panels and hopes to effect change.
“The act is good, but it needs to be better,” he told a symposium gathered at the Simcoe County Museum, Tuesday night. “We’ve got to find a balance on the rules.
“Widespread solar technology on farmland is food versus fuel. We can do it all, but we’ve got to find a balance.”
Rooftops in Barrie are being targeted for large-scale solar development.
The city has negotiated with local utility, PowerStream, to install solar panels on seven of its largest buildings, under the large-scale FIT program. PowerStream earns .715 cents per kWh for projects generating from 10 kilowatts to 250 kilowatts and pays the city to lease the space.
“The process to determine the size of the other projects included a solar analysis which determined whether the roof orientation and size were suitable to deploy a solar array in the size Power- Stream was looking for, a roof structural analysis to determine that the existing roof space could structurally handle the proposed design and a preliminary design to ensure there was space for the other equipment needed and that the power could be easily fed to the grid,” explained Barry Thompson, Barrie’s energy and environmental officer. “All new buildings are also being looked at by PowerStream and the Surface Water Treatment Plant on Big Bay Point will likely be getting a large system once the building is complete and operational.”
A total of 1.114 megawatts will be generated with the following projects, expected to be installed next spring, generating $55,000 for the city: Allandale Recreation Centre (237 kW); East Bayfield Community Centre (89 kW); Holly Community Centre (430 kW); operations centre and Storage building (237 kW); parking garage (101 kW); library (10 kW– MicroFIT0; former provincial offences court (next to City Hall) 10 kW– MicroFIT).
Juice squeeze
By MARG. BRUINEMAN Barrie Examiner November 19 2010
With coal-fired plants considered dirty and archaic and nuclear risky, and dirty too, Ontario is forging ahead with clean energy.
Instead of concentrated energy-producing facilities, clean energy often requires multiple, smaller sites capturing the sun, wind, water and farm waste.
The incentives for the newest energy generators — particularly wind- and solar-created energy — are mighty attractive. All sorts of people are interested in getting a piece of the green pie. The Barrie area isn’t considered much of a mecca for wind. That leaves the other developing energy source: the sun. In Ontario, farming the sun can pay anywhere from 44.3 cents to 80.2 cents per kWh.
Farms and farmland are being targeted for small- and large-scale solar electricity production and local operators are catching on. The small solar photovoltaic programs under the MicroFIT program use rooftops and edges of properties to produce under 10 kilowatts of power. The large installations, FIT (feed-in tariff), target larger rooftops and parcels of land.
North of Barrie there are 10 proposals to develop solar-producing facilities on farm land. And while they offer handsome returns to farmers through long-term lease agreements, there is concern over the loss of food-producing land.
“I think, for a lot of people, things are moving fast,” said David Brochu, senior vice president of Recurrent Energy, which is behind the development of the 10 Simcoe County properties.
Recurrent Energy is a San Francisco-based company that began working on the local proposals in 2006, before Ontario’s current rules came into play. It has a total of 19 proposals in Ontario to produce about 170 megawatts of energy through ground-mount photovoltaic projects. Its Ontario investment is expected to exceed $500 million.
“Solar provides electricity at the peak of demand,” said Brochu. “What we’re seeing is more and more jurisdictions… are deciding that solar needs to be part of that mix.”
Recurrent Energy develops small- to medium-sized solar projects, and considers itself the third-largest solar developer in North America, where it does 90% of its business. It also has projects in Europe, Spain and Israel.
But its sale earlier this month to the massive Sharp Corporation in Japan for $305 million may pave the way for larger developments and more aggressive growth. Sharp is known for its development of the first Japan-made radios and televisions and its calculator. But it has also spent the past five decades focusing on the solar cell business.
In March, Sharp started mass production in the world’s largest solar cell production facilities for thin-film solar cells.
Ontario’s goal, like that of California, is to move away from reliance on fossil fuels. In addition to being clean, the advantage of capturing solar energy is that it helps to supply peak demand.
Brochu said there is some fear and opposition over the projects, but, he adds, the concerns are over the process, not the company.
“Really, what they are opposed to is the rules and the regulations,” he said.
Already, one round of public meetings have taken place, resulting in some changes to the local projects, said Brochu. A second round of public consultations is expected to occur between February and April where more information will be available for area residents.
The Ontario Power Authority calls the province’s green energy initiatives North America’s first comprehensive guaranteed pricing structure for renewable electricity production. The goal is to phase out coal-fired electricity generation by 2014, boost economic activity and develop renewable energy technologies and create new green industries and jobs.
A batch of large-scale contracts to create green energy were announced this past spring. The Ontario Power Authority issued 694 contact offers, 550 for solar projects over 10 kilowatts, accounting for more than 750 megawatts of renewable energy potential. The province figured that would create 20,000 jobs and attract about $9 billion in private sector investment.”The goal of the FIT program … is to transition Ontario’s electricity system into a cleaner electricity system,” said Kristin Jenkins, Ontario Power Authority’s director of community, stakeholder and media relations.
The Green Energy and Green Economy Act was introduced at the end of 2008. Jenkins said several months of consultations followed and the program was launched during the fall of 2009, replacing a previous policy launched three years earlier. In October 2009, the Ontario Power Authority was designated to implement the resulting program
Here, the deal includes a 60% made-in-Ontario clause.
The Feed-in Tariff program already exists in dozens of countries, including several in Europe. Germany is seen as a leader, developing its FIT program in 2000 from a previous green initiative launched a decade earlier. It’s considered the most effective in encouraging green energy production.
The idea is to offer purchase prices based on the cost of creating that energy and locking into long-term contracts. So what the utility pays for solar energy isn’t the same as it pays for biomass, wind or water-generated power — each is different, recognizing their different costs. And a large project may command a price different than that of a small project.
Ultimately, the cost of buying these alternative sources of power are expected to drop to grid parity — largely through continuous technological advancements.
And it is the consumer that picks up the tab at the end of the day. Provincial ratepayers are expected to pay about $300 more every year on their electricity bills.
The Green Energy and Green Economy Act marked a major shift in how Ontario perceives its energy-generating future.
“FIT rates are quite attractive to investors,” said Anne Smith, the energy and infrastructure ministries’ media relations co-ordinator. “It really was: ‘OK, we’re going to open it up … to let the market drive what’s going to happen.'”
While it offers a plan to create energy in the absence of coal-fired facility, planning for the province’s future energy needs continues.
“The government now is in the midst of consulting on a long-term energy plan,” said Smith.
Work on the 20-year Integrated Power Supply Plan continues.

Part 3: Critic sees lumps in juice from sun
By MARG. BRUINEMAN, BARRIE EXAMINER November 20 2010
Bernard Pope looks at a farm field pushing up corn and shakes his head.
“Now tell me that isn’t good farm land,” he says with disdain. “All that property is going to be solar.
“The land next to it just had grain taken off it.”
The farm, just outside Midhurst on Concession 2 in Oro-Medonte Township, is one of 10 in the area where California company, Recurrent Energy, wants to install a solar operation. About 75 acres of that prop-e rty will be covered in solar panels instead of corn and other crops for the next 30 years.
Pope, a farmer with a day job whose Bass Lake property is within walking distance of three of the proposals, says in its zest, provincial organizations are moving too rapidly with its solar plans. While some land is not useful for much else, the projects he’s been eyeing are going to be taking good farmland out of production for an awfully long time.
One of the properties, he says, has been farmed since 1828. He warns that, while the program has merits, it is littered with flaws that, once implemented can’t be reversed.
And it lays the foundation for further mistakes.
Pope travels along Doran Road, just east of Midhurst, pointing to the open land on both sides.
All of it has been sold to speculators.
With farms in the area fetching up to $2 million for 100 acres, some local farmers are retiring in a comfort they couldn’t access in their working lives.
The investors hope to someday build homes in the area and they are happy to wait, 10, even 20 years, watching the land further increase in value. The farmers continue to work the land, in the interim.
Pope says there’s nothing he can do about the loss of farm land in development areas. But the solar initiative on farms is in its infancy and should be checked before it matures.
The best farmland, Classes 1 and 2, can’t be used for wholesale solar production and Class 3 is limited to 500 kilowatts. Everything else, up to Class 7 the worst land to farm, are open to solar development.
Those opposing solar projects say there are flaws with the land designation -an old classification that is too broad and doesn’t necessarily reflect the current status of the land.
Pope suggests each proposed property should be independently assessed before the go-ahead is given for solar production.
“They just seem to be going into something that’s too good to be true,” said Pope. “It hasn’t been researched properly.”The government is moving ahead too quickly, with a policy with too many holes in it.”
To move the process along, the Green Energy Act removes the approval process typically required from the municipality. No re-zoning is required. While public meetings and reports are necessary, all approvals are done on the provincial level.
This too, is a concern.
“What the province did… is they took the municipal approval away,” said Andria Leigh, director of development services for Oro-Medonte Township. “It is a bit of a concern for the municipality.”
There are worries that the proposals remove good farmland from production. There are also worries that some of the solar instalments could adversely affect adjoining property – largely homes on severed lots.
Council has heard from both Recurrent Energy about its four proposals in the township as well as Pope. And the municipality is encouraged by the comp a n y’s promise to return to council once some studies are completed.
But the company isn’t required to report to municipality or even deal with it unless it wants to put up a structure under the building code.
The municipality knows that there is an appeal mechanism, but everything’s so new, it’s not clear what that mechanism is and how it will work.
Leigh said the municipality would prefer to just get everything done right in the first place and not go the route of an appeal.
“There’s nothing to look at as comparable,” she said.
Mayor Harry Hughes says there are more questions, it seems, than answers. And Oro- Medonte isn’t satisfied with the responses it’s received so far.
“Whether it has to go on farmland at all is a question,” he said.
One unanswered question is the impact to the township’s bottom line. A manufacturing facility or an industry would command a tax rate different than land zoned agricultural. Since the zoning process has been removed from the municipality, how solar production farms will compensate the municipality for use of its services is unclear.
“We’ve asked the question, but we’ve never received an answer,” said Hughes. “The concern is… where this whole thing is going.
“We don’t know how long it’s going to go on for… or if there’s going to be more.”
There are also questions about the practical application of the project. Hughes wants to know how high the panels will be off the ground. If they’re high enough, maybe the land can continue to be used for sheep grazing, he muses. That, at least, will keep the land useable and somewhat viable in the future for farming. If the panels are too low, their use could well be paralyzed in the winter by snow build up, he furthers.
“As I look out of my living room window, I will be looking out at a solar farm,” concludes Hughes, who lives on Line 6, north of Highway 11.

Final part of 4 part series looking at solar farming
Solar plan energizes local farmer
ByMARG. BRUINEMAN, BARRIE EXAMINER November 24 2010
The Doyles have toiled in the dirt all their lives. They’ve raised their four children on the second-generation farm and the first grandchild has arrived.
David has been working full-time off the farm, on and off for 10 years, and Charlotte has been providing support for ill family members.
And then they received a letter from solar developer, Recurrent Energy.
“Everybody got this letter,” said Charlotte, “Ninety per cent of the people took them and threw them in the wood stove.”
The Doyles didn’t. They took Recurrent up on their offer to develop a solar photovoltaic system on 63 acres of their 200-acre Tay Township farm, north of Coldwater. The project, known as RE Waubaushene 5 proposes a five megawatt solar facility.
It’s one of 10 developments proposed by Recurrent in Simcoe County.
It was an offer they figured they couldn’t pass up. After years of struggling on the farm, the solar project gives them a guaranteed income, leaves them with enough land for 4-H activities and hobby farming. And, they get to keep the land, maybe pass it on to the third generation.
Being part of the clean energy initiative isn’t a bad bonus, either, adds David.
“It’s win-win,” he said. “It’s a lot better than someone coming in here and saying: ‘OK, we’re going to put a subdivision in here.’
“With panels, I couldn’t see anything wrong with it. It’s energy. It’s there in the sky, just farm it.”
The Doyles have heard the arguments against solar-energy developments on farms.
It’s a new initiative with new rules and there are concerns about non-food producing uses of existing farms, which are diminishing in number but increasing in importance.
But, ultimately, the Doyles say it’s their land and it’s their decision to make. It’s the best offer they’ve ever seen and it’s legitimate.
Recurrent’s 10 local projects are the first of what could well be more local solar developments. As the province actively tries to move away from coal-fired energy plants, it has placed emphasis on green energy development. Much of it is on farms.
Ron Hoggarth has approached local farmers on behalf of another solar developer and, like, the Doyles, sees the potential.
Having grown up on a farm in Ivy, he knows the challenges of today’s farmer.
“This is creating a revenue stream for the farmers and the farmer still owns the property,” he said. “Leasing is an excellent option for a farmer.”
Hoggarth left the family farm to go to university. He’s best known in the Barrie area as an NHL referee. After developing and then selling a pool business, Hoggarth is on his third career.
Now as a commercial real estate agent he’s been on the lookout for more land on which solar energy can be created.
Among those who have said thanks, but no thanks, are the Browns, who like many farmers, see themselves as stewards of the land.
Just outside of Dalston, alongside Highway 93, Brown’s Farm produces corn and pumpkins as well as beef.
They’re unsure if any of their three children will take over the 150-acre farm. But they are sure someone in the family will step up to take over. It’s been in the family since 1871 and they’d like to see that tradition continue.
“Our aim is to keep it as it is,” said Connie Brown who grew up on a century farm in nearby Edenvale. “We want to preserve the farmland.
“It means a lot to see your farm remain and to produce food is very important.”
There’s no question there are pressures. After generations of working the land, many local farmers close to built up areas are finding nice retirement packages from developers mounting into millions of dollars.
The Browns say they’re not interested in selling the farm.
“I drive past farms, now with houses on them and that breaks my heart,” said Connie.
While Brown’s Farm lies along a rural stretch along Highway 93, away from suburban sprawl, it’s recently been attracting some attention, to the chagrin of the Browns.
“We’ve had three real estate agents approach us, wanting to buy or lease our farm for solar production,” said Brown.
“I said to them: ‘Where is your food going to come from?'” if more and more farms are being pulled out of food production, she replied to the agents.
With his two brothers, Roger Spence has developed the family’s original third-generation farm and built upon it for their dairy, beef feed lot and cash crop operations. They own 2,800 acres altogether, adding to it when they can, all becoming partners in a corporation.
The Spence family didn’t jump into the small-scale solar opportunities like others did this past spring.
They figure there are plenty of ways to get 10% return on their investment. As family farmers who have developed a successful farming formula in their corporation, solar is an option they didn’t need to explore. And the big developers haven’t come knocking.Just the same the future for the Spence farm is firm. His son is already entrenched as the fourth generation to farm the land.
While development on their land hasn’t been an issue – they’re not near built-up areas and have never been approached by developers -they have been impacted. Farmers who have sold their valuable property elsewhere in the province have moved their business to this area, buying cheaper land at premium prices.
That, says Spence, has driven up property values in the area, making it more challenging for farmers like the Spences to add to their holdings.
Now Spence looks at solar with the eye of a skeptic and an observer.
“I really hope I’m here in 20 years to find out if it was a good thing or not,” said the Elmvalearea farmer.
news@thebarrieexaminer.com
– – –
Farm income down:
The 2009 total net income for Ontario farms was a loss of $330 million.
The forecast for 2010 shows a loss of a further half billion dollars.
The farm income show a national farm income loss of more than $164 million.

 

 

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