Strathroy farmer spent $85,000 to erect solar panels and sell electricty to the grid only to have the project cancelled by the Ontario government
STRATHROY — Henry Aukema saw his retirement plans crumble in the words of an e-mail from Hydro One.
The 57-year-old Strathroy farmer had been one of 25,000 Ontarians to apply to erect solar panels whose electricity could be sold to the grid at a guaranteed premium for 20 years.
The return was attractive: Aukema calculated by the time he paid off a loan to build the solar array he’d be 65 — and then could produce income of as much as $15,000 a year.
The risk seemed non-existent: He had been given a conditional offer by the Ontario Power Authority under a plan proposed and backed by the Ontario government.
So Aukema borrowed $85,000 rather than cashing in part of his modest RRSP and paid for the project and the electrical work needed to hook it to the grid.
Then he waited.
In November and January he phoned Hydro One and was told his project should prove easy to connect.
Still, nothing happened.
Last week he worked a frigid day outside, then went to the basement of his home to check his e-mail.
The form letter from Hydro One began with a pat on the back for the provincial government:
“The tremendous success of the (program) signals that Ontarians clearly want to play an important role in feeding clean and renewable sources of power into the electricity grid.”
Then came the kick to the gut:
“Some applicants are facing system constraints and will not be able to connect until system upgrades are made. Based on our analysis, we have determined that your project is impacted by system constraints. We regret to inform you that we are unable to provide you with an offer to connect your (project) at this time.”
Aukema was stunned.
“I felt sick. Then I had to explain it to my wife. She asked if that meant we couldn’t go on vacations anymore,” Aukema said.
It’s not clear how many identical e-mails have or will be sent by Hydro One and other utilities — estimates start in the hundreds but potentially go much higher.
Thirty kilometres from Aukema, Steve Baert opened one of the e-mails in a home between London and St. Marys.
A self-employed electronics technologist who services computers and printers, the frugal Baert spent $45,000 out-of-pocket for parts. Then he designed and built a solar array mostly on his own, working as many as 15 hours a day since September — thousands of hours in total — until he opened the e-mail from Hydro One.
“I was numb for the rest of the day. We are extremely thrifty. We don’t spend $45,000 on retirement lightly and have it all smack into a brick wall,” he said.
Both Baert and Aukema levy the same charge against the Ontario government: When the Ontario Power Authority handed out conditional offers last August no one mentioned even a remote possibility that they or anyone else might not be able to get hooked up to the grid.
“We’ve been led down the garden path,” Aukema said.
Told of the plight of the two men, Ontario Energy Minister Brad Duguid said, “We’re doing our very, very best. I commented very strongly to Hydro One to stretch our transmission capacity to the maximum.”
Asked if they’d be connected within two years, Duguid said he didn’t know.
Asked why Ontario Power Authority issued conditional offers and Hydro One instructions without warning that not all solar arrays would be connected, Duguid said people shouldn’t be so quick to second guess.
“It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback. (The process) is all new. At a certain point of time information came forward that there would be a challenge,” he said.
Aukema said he contacted Hydro One but they refused to answer questions unless they’re put in writing. He said he also left a message with his MPP, Marie Van Bommel (L — Lambton-Kent-Middlesex), but didn’t hear back from her. The Free Press phoned Van Bommel’s constituency office last Friday and asked for the MPP but she didn not return the call.
Both Aukema and Baert said they aren’t aren’t sure what their next step might be because Hydro One hasn’t said how long they might have to wait to be connected to the grid.
The so-called microFIT program has attracted about 25,000 applications with another 50 to 80 applications arriving each workday, according to the Ontario Power Authority.
So far, 3,700 projects have been connected to the grid, another 2,500 are next in the queue and 13,800 have been offered a conditional deal but now must see if there is capacity to hook up.
How many will be turned away and how long they may have to wait remains murky — Duguid said last week the “vast majority” would proceed unimpeded, then later said just a majority.
Duguid also said he expects utilities to pay for upgrades that enable connections by raising electricity rates.
London Hydro has already committed $2.5 million and expects to have to pay significantly more.