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Is microFIT another rip off on taxpayers?

In a word, no.

I have tried to be factual in all other parts of this website, because I believe getting the facts out there is a valuable public education service; solar power, and microFIT are relatively new things that most people know nothing about. I believe they are important things and so I want to help explain them as clearly as possible, in an unbiased way.

But this one page is not focused on facts, at least not hard facts. This is a political editorial, because, predictably, microFIT has become a political football, like the rest of the Ontario electricity system always has been. So I feel I should try and contribute to the “debate” and summarize how this football field looks from where I’m standing.

The government of Ontario has always massively subsidized the former Ontario Hydro, and the “new” Ontario Power Generation is still 100% owned by the government. The government is still on the hook for the bill to retrofit nuclear power stations, and the government is in charge of regulating electricity prices.

The FIT and microFIT programs are excellent programs that are designed to encourage investors to pour their own money into Ontario and create jobs. They have done that. Ask anyone remotely associated with the solar power industry in Ontario, the level of activity is huge. In 2009, Ontario became the third largest market for solar electricity installations in North America, behind only California and New Jersey. And FIT and microFIT only officially started in October of 2009!

Consider the alternatives. Following the tried-and-true model for building electricity generating capacity in Ontario, the government could take your tax dollars and throw them down the nuclear drain (remember we’ll all be paying off the debt of the old Ontario Hydro for many more years, and about half of that debt is thanks to Darlington).

Or, the government could encourage entrepreneurship and the private sector to pick up the slack, and build a 21st century electricity system to rival anywhere in the world. Considering the private sector focus, it’s really remarkable that the political forces lining up against FIT and microFIT are the conservative ones. (And for the record, the so-called $7 billion sweetheart deal with Samsung actually calls for Samsung to invest that much money in Ontario…taxpayers are not shelling out a $7 billion subsidy!)

In all other cases, the Conservatives would take the side of business every time. What’s different about the electricity file?

It’s because power generation in this province has been “nationalized” since day one. Even conservatives cannot escape that fact. It was a conservative who built Ontario Hydro (Sir Adam Beck). Opposing government subsidies for the electricity system in Ontario, is like opposing public health care. It’s political suicide. People expect their electricity bills to be small, and not go up very much. And they expect the government to make that happen.

The FIT and microFIT programs try to move beyond this, by encouraging private investment in electricity, and by spreading the cost among the users, rather than taking money out of government coffers directly. It’s a huge step forward, an attempt to break the cycle of co-dependency that has been created by a century of mismanagement of our electricity system, during which our complicity was bought and paid for with our own tax dollars.

You think mismanagement is too harsh a word? You must have never studied the history of Ontario Hydro then. The best source I can point you to is Electric Empire: The Inside Story of Ontario Hydro, by Paul McKay. It’s out of print, but you can find it in the Toronto Public Library system and most other libraries I’m sure.

I’m not a right-wing conservative, and I don’t automatically believe that “the invisible hand of the market” is superior to the hand of government. But in the case of the electricity system, the government and Ontario Hydro/OPG/Hydro One/IESO have proven themselves incapable of doing what’s necessary to build the electricity system we need. They’re talking about building more nuclear reactors when we don’t even use the ones we have all the time, and when we’ve been reminded yet again by the tragedy in Japan, that nuclear is not worth the risk anyway. They’ve screwed up the so-called electricity market so badly that some power generators are paid NOT to produce electricity!

The best thing about FIT, and especially microFIT, is that anyone in Ontario can participate. If you don’t have a good roof location yourself, then there are co-op programs out there which you can join, and become a part owner of a larger scale system. Options for Green Energy is one, and TREC’s SolarShare is another. (Full disclosure: I am a member of Options for Green Energy.)

The only people complaining about FIT and microFIT are people who don’t understand it, and/or who have a vested interest in kicking the electricity football around the political field a while longer. Don’t play that game, walk away and head to a better future.