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Ontario's controversial green energy program may get more attention, but Nova Scotia has also embarked on an ambitious plan to wean the province off its dependence on coal-generated electricity.
Nova Scotia has a target of generating 25 percent of its power from renewables by 2015, and 40 percent by 2020. Coal-based power will drop from 75 percent to 40 percent.
A key component of the plan is to light a fire under community-based renewable projects, by offering them a substantial pricing subsidy.
Nova Scotia's ComFIT program -- which stands for community feed-in-tariff -- looks very much like Ontario's FIT program, but with an emphasis on smaller projects that have local input. Individual municipalities, first nations, co-ops, universities or non-profit groups can apply for contracts to sell power to the province from wind, hydro, biomass or tidal generating systems, at relatively high guaranteed rates.
Small wind projects, for example can get as much as 49.9 cents per kilowatt hour for the electricity they generate, while small tidal power generating plants get a whopping 65.2 cents per kwh. (By contrast, the rate Nova Scotia Power charges to domestic customers is about 12.6 cents per kwh.)
The first contracts were awarded in December, with five projects -- four wind, one tidal -- getting the nod. Several more are expected to be approved within the next few weeks. Eventually, the government hopes to hand out 100 megawatts worth of contracts, enough to supply electricity to 100,000 homes.
Nova Scotia Energy Minister Charlie Parker said one reason for focusing on local projects is to try to build widespread support for renewable energy. "We just felt it would be a good way to get community buy-in and help spread the message," he said.
Parker noted that ComFIT is just one component of a larger renewables strategy. The province is also accepting competitive bids from independent power producers for larger commercial projects, and several renewable projects are being built directly by the province's electricity utility.
Solar was not included in the initial phase of ComFIT because the government figured it was too expensive. Now that solar-panel prices have dropped precipitously, the province will consider adding solar projects to the ComFIT mix, Parker said.
Over all, the relatively high prices paid for renewables will encourage development without adding sharply to consumer prices, he said, because ComFIT projects form a relatively small proportion of the province's overall power generation. "In the big picture, it encourages renewable energy, but it doesn't have a huge impact on the overall electricity costs."
Eventually, renewable energy prices will fall and become more competitive, especially as the cost of coal and oil-fired power increases, he said.
One of the first ComFIT contracts went to the town of Chester, about 70 kilometres west of Halifax. Later this year it will begin construction on a turbine to be built adjacent to its landfill site.
Allen Webber, warden for the municipality of the district of Chester, said the town's wind-turbine plans would likely not have gone ahead without the ComFIT program.
The town had put up towers to test the wind regime "but without any certainty as to how we were going to proceed because we knew it was going to be very costly and we're not in the business of taking great risk," Webber said. "A guaranteed rate over 20 years is just the kind of security that a municipality needs when spending taxpayers' money on this type of venture."
The town wanted a turbine as a new way to generate revenue, along with a desire to contribute to the province's shift away from coal, he said. Without ComFIT, it would likely have had to work with a private developer, and would have lost much of the local control over the project.
Jim Harbell, a lawyer who specializes in energy issues at Stikeman Elliott in Toronto, said that using the FIT model makes good sense for Nova Scotia.
"It is a smaller jurisdiction that is looking for an efficient way to hit an ambitious renewable energy target," he said. Getting local residents to support -- and even invest in -- local projects is a smart way to boost public acceptance of renewable energy, he added. "They will have a say in the nature of the technology, where it is going to be located, how big it is going to be, and they [may] share in the proceeds."
'BUY-IN' IS A KEY ELEMENT
In the town of Tatamagouche, N.S., the local wind farm has achieved a remarkable degree of "buy-in" from people living nearby: More than 200 individuals have paid an average of $6,500 to purchase shares in the company that owns it.
The firm is known as Colchester-Cumberland Wind Field (CCWF) and it is what's known as a community economic development corporation, an entity set up under provincial rules as a kind of co-op.
It already has one functioning turbine built before the ComFIT program was put in place, delivering power to the province under a negotiated contract. But its second turbine (construction begins in the spring) will benefit from a higher-paying ComFIT contract awarded in December.
CCWF project manager David Swan said the organization has two more turbines on the drawing board, and hopes they too will get the nod for ComFIT contracts.
The community ownership means support is widespread, he said, and shareowners include "everyone from carpenters to schoolteachers to bank employees." Many people who have bought in have never before invested directly in a company, Swan said. "These people have an entrepreneurial spirit suddenly. They say: 'My god, I can actually see where my money is going.' "
Overall, he said, the ComFIT has shown people that "you can have a local business [involved] in green enterprise and make a buck at it."