Paolo Maccario, COO, Silfab reflects on his industry
Can you give us a few thoughts on the solar business today? Where is it? Who are you selling to? What’s happening here?
The solar business in Ontario, and in Canada in general, as Ontario is over 95 per cent of the Canadian market, has been driven by policy — 2009 is when the province issued Green Energy Act. It created a stir in the solar market because Ontario was the place to be, which is one of the reasons why Silfab is here. Between the reality and the promise, there is quite a significant gap. In part, because of entrenched interests, with nuclear probably the strongest one.
But in general, the concept of distributed generation is not well accepted in the province or in a country with large generating power plants sending electricity many miles away. In part because the policy became politics and therefore the Liberal party was attacked by the opposition parties for various mistakes, including ones we are obviously seeing today, with the cancellation of the gas power plants. Also there was rural opposition with windmills, not with solar. This has caused significant rethinking and some shuffling of government people. If you couple overall resistance to change, with entrenched interests, and not enough support from those who issued the policy in the first place — and add a reduction in demand for power generation after 2009, there isn’t a need for additional hydro in the province.
All that created a market that was expected to be, if not a large market, but one that could support and create a cluster generating innovation, potentially competing with the Germanys of the world and with China. In reality, the market never took off. After two and a half years, finally some of the Ontario Power Authority contracts released three years ago are coming to fruition and now in 2013 there is a bit more activity. But in 2011 and 2012 we were literally chasing every single rooftop and not just at a commercial but also on a residential level.
So where will it be now in the next several years? Who are you chasing?
It’s created a quite interesting evolution because at the beginning we needed a model that permitted chasing residential rooftops. Now there are some big utilities-scale projects that have finally received permits and are starting to happen, and that created strategic opportunities for linking with some of the larger Asian companies without North American production facilities. There is a Green Energy Act requirement for domestic content, so those companies cannot compete locally with our manufacturing facility.
We can now offer a Silfab or Asian-branded module to different customers according their needs. The market is still very small though. Everybody’s hoping that with a review of the Long-Term Energy Plan coming this November, there would again be some commitment to renewable power. It’s nowhere because federally, there is very limited commitment. Provincially, only one or two of the parties are committed to renewable. The opposition is totally against.
What would you tell the public if they ask what the importance of solar is? What would you say?
P: First of all, it’s not only solar. My first choice would be conservation; even if I obviously produce solar panels. The public should realize that neither water nor electricity is free. Nor should it be. The idea that a party rather than a lobbying group would be espousing the idea that in today’s world, a country succeeds based on low cost of electricity or energy, to me is like telling somebody who is obese and who knows that he or she has to compete in the Olympics 100-meter dash that having free food is the right recipe to win.
I wish the general public would realize that we couldn’t afford to consume as much energy as we are. And certainly also realizing that the emission intensity of some of the solutions that we have does not matter. Obviously in Ontario, we are different from the rest of country where CO2 emission either from gas or oil are quite significant. In Ontario, some people believe that nuclear is a renewable option; although it does not emit CO2 it is not exactly renewable. The people in Germany and Japan and a few other places have realized that it is perhaps not the right way. It’s needed and it can’t be moved away from completely but we do not need to spend a few more billion dollars having more centralized nuclear power plants. Then when there is a snowstorm or an ice storm, transmission lines drop and consumers are left without electricity.
You clearly support the distributive model?
I like the distributive model in general. Not only because it is a bit more democratic and how much you are consuming can be seen and then consumption can be adjusted accordingly. But also because the infrastructure is actually significantly less expensive, I hope that as a country we will arrive at the realization that we cannot continue to consume as much as we do. Devising a method to reduce consumption allows us to export some of the processes that we created here in Canada to other countries where electricity is not free.
I would say that between making a product or devising a process and exporting that process, the former has less longevity than the latter. If you are hungry for conservation or for a normative solution there are technologies that can be exported when the product itself will no longer be in demand. Suggesting instead free electricity will make my cost of goods sold lower or If instead it makes me smarter or makes my engineers dig deeper to find new technologies, those technologies can be exported in other areas of the world that may not require the product but need the technology.