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TDSB green energy program in danger

June 10th, 2011 · No Comments

Jennet Poffenroth, teacher and leader of the Solar Inventors Club at Hillcrest. Julia Manoukian/GLEANER NEWS

By Julia Manoukian

The Toronto District School Board has jumped on the green bandwagon with a long-term solution that seemingly kills two birds with one stone, but the upcoming provincial election could bring all this to a halt.

Unveiled May 19, and born at Hillcrest Community School (44  Hilton Ave.), a groundbreaking partnership between the TDSB and AMP Solar Group Inc. would see solar panels installed on school roofs all across Toronto, and the energy generated sold to local consumers. The deal is believed to be the largest of its kind in North America, potentially worth $1.1 billion in green electricity over the 20-year contract.

Hillcrest was the site of the pilot project. For the past three years, the school has sported 52 solar panels on its rooftop. As an environmental leader in the Annex, the school has used the panels as a source of clean energy.

“Up on our roof I think we’re generating more than electricity, more than possible income—we’re actually generating ideas. We’re generating hope, we’re generating imagination, problem solving, and curriculum,” said Jennet Poffenroth, a staff member and leader of the Solar Inventors Club at Hillcrest. This local success became the basis for a new deal and a precursor for the expansion of solar energy in Toronto schools.

The board reported AMP is responsible for repairing 42 per cent of its roofing portfolio and installing solar photovoltaic panels on these rooftops, at a total cost of $120 million dollars. The 66 megawatts of solar energy generated annually from the panels will be sold to the distribution grid for use by Ontario consumers. This is enough to power 6,000 Toronto homes, and will offset a significant component of the board’s $3-billion backlog in basic repairs.

“Our rooftops represent a major untapped sustainable-energy resource,” said Chris Bolton, chair of the TDSB. “By installing solar panels on them, Toronto communities will get clean green energy, 450 schools will receive much-needed roof repairs, and TDSB students will experience an unparalleled real-life lesson in sustainable living.”

Despite the board’s claims that AMP is responsible for all project costs, many members, including Mr. Bolton, remain apprehensive about the deal. “I think it could be considered to be almost too good to be true,” he said at the unveiling. The installments also remain contingent on Feed-in Tariff (FIT) applications, which pay people or institutions for the renewable energy they produce, to be approved by the Ontario Power Authority.

However, with the upcoming provincial election this October, the plan may not survive a change in parliament. On May 10, Ontario Progressive Conservative leader, Tim Hudak, promised in a speech to the Ontario Power Summit to scrap the program in order to prevent Ontario families from paying unsustainable subsidies on their hydro bills for the next 20 years.

“The problem is we still don’t know how many of these projects will be connected to the lack of transparency of this program,” said Progressive Conservative candidate for Trinity-Spadina Mike Yen. “Renewable energy must be at a price Ontario families can afford.”

Regardless of any scepticism, Poffenroth’s optimistic attitude not only inspired her students, who crafted and showcased solar-powered cars, but it echoed through the room, evident by the lasting applause. “It’s a win-win for everyone involved,” commented Chris Spence, director of education at the TDSB. “This school board led the way to realizing a greener future with our highly acclaimed EcoSchools program—now we are doing it again.”

After the company recovers the cost of the roof repairs, the TDSB will collect 14.5 per cent of the energy revenue. Once the contract is over, the school board will have full ownership of the panels.

Although the prospect of a Conservative majority may jeopardize the future of this historic deal, it seems a new and lasting light has been shed on the future generation. “We really learn the difference we can make to help the environment,” said Luke Brenton, a Grade 6 student at Hillcrest Community School and member of the Social Inventors Club, “because solar energy is the future.”

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