Sask. solar industry blasts SaskPower's relaunched 'net-metering' program

SaskPower has launched a revamped version of the 'net-metering' program, but solar companies say it will kill a growing industry.

The new net-metering program is scheduled to launch Nov. 1. It will allow SaskPower customers to generate their own electricity with solar panels and receive credit for any excess they generated on the provincial grid.

Under the updated program, customers will still be able to offset their energy use at their retail rate while their systems are generating. Any excess energy sent to the grid will be credited at 7.5 cents/kWh against the customer's energy charge. This is about half of what the previous iteration of the program paid. SaskPower says the price reflects the average cost of energy for 2020 and 2021.

The province has removed a cap on how much electricity in total can be produced under the program, but it has also eliminated a key subsidy.

The provincial government will no longer give rebates on capital equipment and installations across the province with the new program.

The previous program was suspended two years earlier than expected after interest in the program spiked, causing it to reach its 16-megawatt cap. 

The new program includes no limit on program capacity, no program end date and no specified contract length. 

"While large, utility-scale projects are by far the most economical way to add renewable energy to the grid, net metering will remain another tool in the toolbox as SaskPower works to meet its target of reducing greenhouse gases 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030," added Dustin Duncan, Minister Responsible for SaskPower.

'We have weak leadership in office' solar CEO says 

The changes to the program, specifically the reduction in how much is being paid back for excess energy, is being met with anger and disappointment from the solar industry.

"This is the worst-case scenario for people that want to go solar in Saskatchewan," said Miguel Catellier CEO of Tru Green Energy.

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Catellier said that, under the previous system, people that hoped to go solar were able to pay off their systems in eight to 10 years. He said the new plan will push that to 15 to 20 years making it less attractive.

"In Saskatchewan, we've got the tail wagging the dog with the utility setting the policy."

Catellier said he is convinced SaskPower wants nothing to do with residential solar.

"The utility won here because we have weak leadership in office."

He said a similar shift killed the solar industry in Manitoba and he expects a 90-to-95 per cent drop off in business industry-wide in Saskatchewan.

'Very very ominous message' says solar CEO

Bradyn Parisian, founder and CEO of Regina's Mo' Solar, was one of several in the solar industry lobbying against the change recently. He said there has been a "lack of meaningful engagement and industry participation in this program review process".

"I think it's a very very ominous message from both government and the Crown utility," Parisian said.

Parisian said the new net metering program should be more accurately called net billing. Under the previous system, for every surplus electron you produced you received a full retail credit back from the utility. The new program credits 7.5 cents kW/h, which is roughly half of the retail price of 14 cents per kw/h.

"(Solar) just simply will not survive without that one-to-one credit. It makes absolutely no sense that we would move to basically a 50 per cent credit," Parisian said.

"The utility is going to take those surplus credits and sell them at a fairly significant profit."

The government said in its announcement that the new program would help it achieve its goal of 50 per cent renewables by 2030, but Parisian said it will actually make it more difficult.

Duncan admitted the new system will make paying off a solar conversion take longer.

"This should in no way signal the government or SaskPower's disinterest in renewable energy," Duncan said, listing solar wind and geothermal projects currently in the works.

Duncan said the new program will still a 'negative impact' on SaskPower's bottom line but not as much as its predecessor. SaskPower had previously said it would cost the corporation $54 million by the middle of the decade.

"If you can afford solar panels you can essentially forego a large chunk of your SaskPower bill and yet embedded in that power bill is a large part of the cost to keep the grid, the transmission, the distribution systems all in place," Duncan said.

"The average household income of a net metering customer is $150,000 a year and more. While we want to see more renewable energy and we to see more distributive energy in the province ... we also need to be mindful of customers who cannot afford solar panels."

Catellier called Duncan's claim that net metering costs non-solar users a 'red herring'.

"It's a good [public relations] position to take if you're trying to justify the move. They're spending billions of dollars on carbon re-capture, on natural gas and they're going into huge amounts of debt to buy the infrastructure," Catellier said.

Catellier said less than half of one per cent of customers in Saskatchewan have solar panels. He said most use the power they generate immediately and never receive a cheque from the power corporation, only a credit for what they generated.

Emily Pasiuk/CBC

The increased demand for the old program came after a federal government incentive that uses money from the carbon tax was put in place on July 17.

Applicants were eligible to receive funding of up to 25 per cent of the cost of projects that helped businesses reduce energy use and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Anyone participating in the previous net-metering program will be grandfathered under their current contract as long as there are no changes to their projects. 

At the end of the contract, these customers will become part of the new program.