Workers clean snow off of solar panels. Photo credit: Ambrose Raftis

As I write this, the temperature in Timiskaming is one degree Celsius, the sky is partly cloudy and the ground is covered in snow. But the Sundance project — a recently completed collection of eight ground-mount solar energy arrays in northeastern Ontario above North Bay — is producing thousands of dollars' worth of electricity. Solar is often associated with warm, southern climates, when in reality this form of energy is often cost-effective in the north.

Sundance is owned by SolarShare, a non-profit co-op run by a volunteer board, which builds solar installations throughout the province. Members purchase "solar bonds" in thousand-dollar increments, which pay five per cent annually for five years. The co-op boasts some $60 million in assets and over 1,500 members.

General manager Rob Grand tells me Sundance has the capacity to generate four megawatts and can power about 845 homes a year.

But these days, producing energy emissions-free is not enough. Electricity projects must not, for example, undermine agricultural production. Grand assures me Sundance is situated on non-arable scrubland that wouldn't be good for growing food.

He also says the ambient vegetation — which needs to be kept in check so it doesn't cover the solar panels — will be maintained not with lawnmowers or herbicides but sheep.

Grand owned and operated the Grassroots environmental stores in Toronto until their closure in 2016. He talks up Sundance's ecological benefits, but it’s clear he's also excited about its technology. Speaking with me at the Ontario legislature following a meeting on renewable energy's future, Grand says the new Sundance project employs a novel tracking system.

Unlike fixed arrays — in which solar panels are in one position throughout the day — "Savanna trackers" allow panels to follow the sun as it crosses the sky, increasing solar exposure and electricity output. Morgan Solar, the technology development company, states that the Savannas generate 25 to 40 per cent higher project yields than fixed-panel setups.

"This tracking system is especially impressive because it optimizes [electricity] production in the morning as the sun comes up and at the end of the day when it's going down," Grand explains. Those are times when fixed panels don’t produce much juice.

He also likes the fact that the technology was developed in Canada (Morgan Solar is based in Toronto) and that Sundance's revenue doesn't leave the country. SolarShare sells the project's electricity to the province under a 20-year contract and then the co-op pays its members their annual interest.

"All of SolarShare's money is provided by people in Ontario," Grand says. "And it goes back to the people of Ontario: in Toronto, in Timiskaming, in Windsor."

As well, Sundance is helping to create a renewable energy workforce in the north. Ambrose Raftis, chair of Green Timiskaming, the project's community partner, says 15 local construction workers spent about a year building the arrays. "They learned what solar energy is," he explains. "Now solar is a reality for them. They see they can participate in the renewable energy economy." A part of the province that formerly had little solar-energy expertise is now gaining it — with benefits for the job market.

Grand has been an environmentalist for decades. "Renewables are relatively new to me," he says. "I started 25 years ago with Pollution Probe's 'Clean Air Commute'", a project that encourages folks to get to work using low-pollution methods such as carpooling, transit and cycling.

Grand calls the project "fairly conservative," noting that later in his career he participated in a non-violent action to shut down a Toronto paper company. "We wanted to raise awareness about Clayoquot Sound and send a message that no one in Toronto supports logging old growth forest."

Today, Grand is pumped by Sundance. It produces solar power in a place that's often cold and snowy — and it makes money for local residents.

"What excites me is that anyone can invest in it," Grand says. "You don't even have to own a roof."

Gideon Forman is a climate policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation. In his private capacity, he is a SolarShare member. 

Gideon Forman is a long time peace and environmental activist.

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