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Thousands of green energy jobs have been created in Toronto and Ontario, but challenges remain

Ontario Energy Minister Brad Duguid has a favourite narrative wrapped up in the larger epic of the province's Green Energy Act. The protagonist is Samco, a GTA auto parts business waylaid by the recession.

"When the global recession hit," he says, "this family business had to lay off workers, which was very painful for them. Now as a result of their decision to invest in the clean energy economy, they've got those workers back and they're going full steam ahead."

Samco's rebirth as a solar equipment manufacturer created 60 green energy jobs, a small amount when set next to the province's target of 50,000 by 2013. But, says Duguid, the story is symbolic of the savvy economics behind the green collar revolution unfolding in the GTA and across Ontario.

The 2009 Green Energy Act spawned the province's feed-in tariff program (FIT), an apparatus of renewable energy subsidies available to companies or individuals who successfully enter into power generating contracts with the province. Solar, wind, hydro and bio-energy projects are all fair game, and the above-market rates are guaranteed for 20 years. The policy includes a requirement to source materials domestically, a key fast lane on the road to the province's job target.

It all goes back to the dawn of the Dalton McGuinty government, when officials, shaken by the Toronto blackout, took stock of the province's energy system. They found an ailing infrastructure and a rapidly rising rate of coal-based energy generation. Inspired by renewable energy policies in Germany and other European jurisdictions, the first tier of the FIT program was introduced under the auspices of the Standard Offer Program, which set the path for the more substantial subsidies of the Green Energy Act.

"Rather than go to renewables kicking and screaming, we would go in full out, become a global leader, get the investments happening here, and create a clean energy hub for projects," says Duguid.

But there has been a bit of kicking and screaming. Framing the domestic supply requirement as protectionist, Japan has launched a complaint with the World Trade Organization. Wind power rankled the NIMBY set. Participants in the earlier program feel short-changed by the stronger subsidies of the new one. And those subsidies have enticed more participants than the grid has transmission capacity. Upgrades will come at a sobering cost, especially in a province that has been protecting consumers from the full price of energy.

"The rates that were offered under FIT were ridiculous," says Conservative energy critic John Yakabuski, "and I think even the industry agrees that government didn't do a good job in limiting its exposure. It's outpacing the ability to sign contracts at those rates."

According to Yakabuski, Germany revisits its rates every three months, while Ontario has no plans to do so at all.

Mike Brigham is the chair of the Toronto Renewable Energy Cooperative (TREC) and a member of TREC SolarShare. He's understanding of the project's hurdles and sympathetic to its timeframes.

"The industry is keenly aware that as impatient as we are to see this succeed, the fact is that we're trying to achieve in two and a half years what the Germans have been working on since 1992 -- and everyone expects it to be working as perfectly."

According to Brigham, the historical approach to building an energy grid was to fatten transmission lines around huge generating centres, while the rural areas that now make fine fodder for wind and solar projects were left decidedly thin.

"By the time you get to the country, these wires are the size of your baby finger, and they just don't carry as much," he says, likening the old grid, with its daunting upgrade costs, to a run-down family car. "There comes a time when you're going to hit some calamitous costs, and before you hit them is when you buy into something new."
NDP energy critic Peter Tabuns supported the Green Energy Act and thinks FIT has been productive -- though he says there's room for more community and municipal ownership than what's already built into the program.

"Politically," says Tabuns, "it's good because you have a lot more stakeholders out there who want renewable energy to be part of the solution in Ontario and have an interest in government policy. Economically, because I think dispersing the money to homeowners and small business and farmers allows us to keep profits within Ontario."

Unsurprisingly for an incumbent hurdling toward an October election, Duguid bristles at Conservative criticisms, sounding a righteous note on the government's promise to deliver 50,000 jobs and describing all other setbacks as growing pains. As for the World Trade negotiations, the ministry will only say those are confidential.

"When you're pioneering a program," Duguid says, "you're going to hit hurdles that you need to overcome."

Meanwhile, jobs are indeed coming on stream. The province doesn't have regional job stats, but there have been a number of local announcements in the past couple years. Celestica, headquartered in Don Mills, announced a deal in January that saw the creation of 300 jobs. Then there's Sungrow in Vaughan, an operation the ministry says is worth 50 jobs. A Burlington project by Siemens produced another 50 jobs. SunEdison's Mississauga office swelled from two employees in November 2009 to 35 a year later. Late last year, California-based Recurrent Energy announced that it would open an international office in Toronto. And then there are the 60 jobs created at Samco.

"My expectation is there are thousands of jobs being created in the GTA area, both directly and through spin-offs," says Duguid.

Province-wide, there were 13,000 jobs created by the end of 2010. That economic activity is valued at $17 billion.

Paul Carlucci is a freelance writer working in the GTA.

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