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Paddling up the solar-power river

By: Martin Cash
Posted: 11/1/2014 1:00am

Jerome Seremak, with the Manitoba Paddling Association (left) and Alex Stuart with Sycamore Energy in front of the Manitoba Canoe and Kayak Centre on Churchill Drive, which has the largest roof-mounted solar-power system in the province.

The Manitoba Paddling Association has been very successful at building up a large contingent of competitive kayak and canoe paddlers in Manitoba.

For instance, Canada had about 50 competitors at a recent world championship, and more than 40 of them were from Manitoba.

In addition to its strong standing in the sport, the MPA is also becoming a leader in the community when it comes to alternative energy.

The association installed geothermal systems at its two facilities — one in Winnipeg and one in Selkirk — a few years ago.

And recently, it turned the switch on a new solar-power installation, which happens to be the largest roof-mounted solar-panel installation in the province. “We try to operate in an environmentally friendly way,” said Jerome Seremak, the head of the association.

The MPA’s 30-panel installations at its two facilities will generate a total of about 15 kilowatt hours.

It’s saying something that it’s the largest roof-mounted installation in Manitoba. Just east of here, in Rainy River, Ont, a 25-megawatt solar installation is being built covering more than one square kilometre.

It’s even more impressive considering Manitoba’s low hydro rates — between seven and eight cents per kilowatt hour — mean the economics for solar-power installations just don’t make sense.

The MPA project was put together by Sycamore Energy Inc., an alternative power systems company founded by local industry entrepreneurs Alex Stuart and Justin Phillips.

Stuart makes no bones about how his company’s solar equipment really doesn’t have a good payoff for potential Manitoba customers.

And while there are generous provincial subsidies for geothermal systems, no such incentives exist in Manitoba for solar.

“The MPA had to be very creative,” Stuart said. The paddling association pitched the idea to the Manitoba Community Places grant program and, in addition to raising money from members and other sponsors, was able to come up with about 60 per cent of the approximately $50,000 cost of the installation.

The solar photovoltaic systems added to the MPA’s recently upgraded geothermal heat pumps is likely also a Manitoba first — an organization using both solar photovoltaic energy and ground heat to reduce its ecological footprint.

Stuart said Sycamore was happy to get a Manitoba project off the ground, but it’s under no illusion about the economics of its offering for Manitoba customers.

“The market pain is just not there in Manitoba,” Stuart said. “And rightfully so. Manitoba Hydro subsidizes our electricity rates. It profits by the export sale of electricity and then artificially depresses our energy costs.”

He credits Hydro for how low rates benefit the province, even if it’s at the expense of his local business.

That’s why his company is focused entirely on the export market, specifically in the Caribbean countries where, in some places, electricity rates are 10 times higher than they are in Manitoba.

Sycamore is just about to flip the switch on a 40-panel installation at a resort in Jamaica and has another ready to go.

But the company has much larger plans to act like its own mini-utility by arranging the financing for capital costs itself and just charging the customer — where the solar panels are installed — for the power it uses.

“You don’t want to own the panels. You just want the energy cheaper than somewhere else,” Stuart said. “If I can take the equipment risks off your hand, then you might be willing to pay me a little more than you can get it if you bought the equipment from me. But you have no up-front costs.”

Stuart said with the help of Export Development Canada, Sycamore is putting together equipment-lease deals and using other financial innovations that are widely used by the solar industry in other markets.

“These kinds of financial innovations in the renewable energy space are big in the U.S.,” he said. “We’re taking that approach, adding some of our own components and we’re looking to do that in the Caribbean.”

Read more by Martin Cash.



530 St. Mary Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba R3C 5R8

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