Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Changing Landscape of Ontario

I recently had the pleasure of traveling across parts of beautiful southwestern Ontario on a couple of road trips. With the cooperation of some incredible early summer weather, I began to finally see the impact of the province's push to build a distributed and green energy grid. While there is still a ways to go before this area is mistaken for the German countryside, there has clearly been a shift in the level of interest in renewable energy generation.

My first excursion was a round-tripper from Toronto to Port Elgin via Orangeville.  The Canadian Autoworkers union was hosting a retreat for the bi-annual environment conference of its Health and Safety Department. The conference, held at the incredible CAW family education centre on the shores of Lake Huron, was attended by workers represented by CAW locals. You can learn more about their environment programme, by reviewing their statement of principles  and checking out their website. 

This leg of the trip exposed me to a number of wind and solar PV installations, increasing in frequency the closer I was to Port Elgin. There were smaller wind farms along the way culminating in a large collection just south of town. The solar installations alternated between ground-mounted dual-axis tracking installations, fixed ground-mounts and much larger custom-built barns to support large micro-FIT rooftop solar.

My next excursion was a lively affair with the ZooShare Biogas Cooperative team to learn about anaerobic digestion in the Niagara region. Vandermeer Greenhouses began in 1976 after Peter Vandermeer had sold his share of a greenhouse business in Holland and emigrated to Canada with his wife and daughter. Two years later, he purchased 5 acres in Niagara-on-the-Lake and started building. Operations slowly expanded over the years eventually reaching 280,000 square feet and becoming the largest grower of cut mums in Ontario.

Primary and secondary digesters w greenhouse in background.
In addition to becoming a greenhouse leader, the Vandermeers were attuned to other ways they could improve their operations. This led them to research and develop an anaerobic digestion installation. It consists of primary and secondary digesters that are 18 m in diameter and 6 m high; a digestate storage container; an engine producing 335 kW of electricity fed into the provincial grid and 402 kW of thermal heat used in the greenhouse.

The digesters are fed grape pumice from local vintners, expired dog food from a dog food supplier in Guelph, Ontario, rotting or otherwise deficient produce from local farmers and coffee grind from a nearby Tim Hortons. In return, Vandermeer produces electricity and heat and digestate that can be used as an organic fertilizer for local farmers or the greenhouse.

However, proponents of green energy should not assume that this transformation is deep rooted. There are still a number of concerns and issues that must be addressed to assuage a variety of groups (including possibly the next government of the province) before the Green Energy and Green Economy Act will grow as sturdy as a mature oak tree.  Evidence of this discontent was also visible during my travels.

Hopefully, Ontarians will arrive at a solution to the development of green energy that will allow for interested developers and generators to reap the rewards for taking on significant risks but will also allow for the civil resolution of concerns expressed by neighbours and communities. Ontario has an opportunity to lead the way in North America and many residents have already opened the door to that opportunity.

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