Why small-scale renewable energy won't work in Nova Scotia

Have you ever considered becoming your own electrical utility and meeting some or all of your electrical demand from renewable sources such as the sun or wind at your home or business?

This is not the unlikely scenario it once was. On-site electrical generation from equipment such as photovoltaics (PVs) and small wind turbines has been made possible with ongoing technological advances and falling costs.

With the proper exposures to sun, wind, or both, a homeowner or small business operator could generate sufficient electricity to meet their own electrical demands. Since the sun and wind are both intermittent renewable energy sources, a means of storage (usually a number of batteries) is required to meet the demand when there is no electricity being generated.

In times when the generation exceeds the demand and the storage capacity has been met, any 'excess' electricity is essentially discarded. However, if the owner of the generation equipment maintains a connection to the local utility's grid, it is possible to supply the excess electricity to the utility (assuming that electrical and safety standards are followed). Utilities in many countries, including the United States and Canada, allow the owners of electrical generation equipment (often called 'customer-generators') to feed electricity to the local grid. There are two broad approaches to this. The first, referred to as "net metering", in which the customer 'banks' electricity on the grid. At the end of each billing period, the customer-generator either owes money to the utility (that is, the customer-generator has consumed rather than supplied electricity to the grid) or has an electricity credit. The credit is applied to the next billing period.

The second approach is referred to as "net billing"; in this case, the customer-generator is paid for any excess electricity generated. The remuneration depends upon the number of electrical meters being used -- a single meter requires the utility to pay the customer-generator the customer's rate, while two meters mean that the customer-generator can be paid below, at, or above the customer's rate.

In this province, Nova Scotia Power supports two-meter net metering. The customer is given credit for any excess electricity generated each month. By using two meters, Nova Scotia Power knows how much electricity the customer-generator actually generates and uses each month. At present, the maximum capacity of the equipment the customer-generator can attach to Nova Scotia Power's grid is 10 kilowatts.

As part of their attempt to open the electricity market, the Nova Scotia Energy Strategy has called for an increase in the capacity of the customer-generator's equipment -- the number suggested was about 50 kilowatts. When the issue of net metering was put to the members of the Energy Strategy's Electricity Marketplace Governance Committee (EMGC), they recommended that the capacity be increased to 100 kilowatts. However, the increase from 10 to 100 kilowatts is not the only recommendation that the EMGC's Final Report made regarding net metering in Nova Scotia. For example, a customer-generator is required to enter into a one-year contract with Nova Scotia Power. At the end of the year, any credits the customer-generator may have accumulated are lost without any form of compensation.

Electricity generated from renewable sources can be certified as 'low-impact renewable energy' and the generators of this electricity can obtain 'green-tags' that can be sold to utilities as an offset to their emissions. Although customer-generators can obtain green-tags, the EMGC recommends that a customer-generator's green-tags belong to Nova Scotia Power.

In some jurisdictions, the customer-generator can receive some or all benefits for generating electricity from renewable sources. This will not be the case in Nova Scotia, where the EMGC has recommended that any benefits from excess electricity or green-tags become the property of Nova Scotia Power.

The Minister of Energy has accepted the EMGC's Final Report and is planning to implement its recommendations. If the Minister is at all interested in promoting renewable energy in Nova Scotia, he will have to reconsider the EMGC's Final Report, starting with its shortsighted recommendations on net metering.

Published: Chronicle-Herald. 13 Feb 2004.