Plugging Hydro into new sources of electricity

Hydro One


For years, I’ve wanted to install photovoltaic panels on our roof to generate electricity, but I’ve balked at buying the batteries to store electricity that I didn’t immediately use.

Instead, I wanted to use Ontario Hydro, now Hydro One, as my battery. I would deliver whatever electricity I wasn’t using to Hydro, and I would draw electricity from Hydro when I wasn’t generating enough, or at night when I wasn’t generating any.

It’s called net billing. Hydro meters can run forward and backward, so it’s simple to record when electricity is going out, and when it is coming in. It would be financially advantageous to Hydro, because it would be getting power from me cheaper than it would cost from commercial suppliers.

The advantage to me would be no batteries. I look on them as environmental monstrosities, given the amount of energy it takes to create them, to say nothing of what’s required for recycling and disposal.

When Maurice Strong was Hydro chairman during the early nineties, I had hoped the crown corporation might be persuaded to adopt net billing. Strong declared that Hydro would develop sources of renewable energy, and he established a division headed by Brian Kelly to create them.

But then Mike Harris came to power, Maurice Strong left, Bill Farlinger became chairman of the board, the push toward renewable energy was blunted.

Hydro’s renewable energy research arm was shut down, and Kelly left to eventually take up a teaching post at York University. Per Drewes also left to start his own consulting firm. He was the person who had perfected the equipment that would enable homeowners to safely deliver electricity to Hydro.

Since then, every time I’ve approached Hydro to inquire about net billing, it’s been like having a conversation with a fog machine.

Yes, I’d be told, Hydro was keenly interested in photovoltaics. And yes, it was studying net billing. But there were pilot projects to be completed, and safety issues to be unraveled, and there was concern about maintaining the quality of the electrical supply. In short, net billing was not coming soon to  Main Street Ontario.
In the meantime, about 20 states in the United States passed laws saying that if a customer is installing photovoltaics and wants net billing, utilities must supply it.

This leaves Ontario lagging in the new world of solar energy. At first blush, this may not seem such a big thing. But it is. Hydro One’s foot-dragging indicates a frame of mind so narrow that it threatens the province with immobility right across the broad area of alternative energy, where things are moving quickly.

With its size and central role in the economy, Hydro One has a significant influence on the state of Ontario’s well being. It can be an influence for good or for ill. At this point, when innovation and enterprise are needed, it can provide powerful support, or it can be a total drag. That’s why mindset is so important.

Now, at last, there is reason to hope things might change. The old board of directors at Hydro One is gone, and although little is known about the direction the new board will take, it can hardly perform worse than the old one.

In addition, with perfect, although unintended timing, the Legislature’s select committee on alternative fuel sources has tabled a superb report. And, wonder of wonders, representatives of all parties were unanimous in their recommendations.

They called on the provincial government to take « aggressive action » to support wind and solar power, as well as fuel cells and other alternatives to gasoline.

So the stage is set for change, and the best place to start is with net billing, because the technology is already available. From that point on, with the passion to innovate unshackled, the future for the environment and the economy will look rosier than it has in a long time.

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