As Saskatchewan promises to accelerate renewable energy, one company has proposed the European community ownership model in a move that could change the way Canada funds clean energy.

Most wind energy projects in North America are funded by private developers who foot the bill and reap all the profit. Saskatchewan-based wind and solar company, SaskWind says projects in Germany and other European countries have been highly successful because community members are often co-owners, sharing the profits.

“Communities got together, and they tended to build smaller projects as a result, which suited their particular needs, and they provided the financing,” said SaskWind President James Glennie in an interview. “I think one of the things that’s interesting and exciting about the internet is that it’s very easy for many people to get together and each put in say $1,000 to finance.”

But if it wants to proceed, SaskWind will need a lot of people buying in with some generous investments. The company wants to crowdfund $90-million to pay for six wind turbines and 30,000 solar panels spread over around 100 acres. The facility could produce 35 megawatts of electricity per year, enough to power around 12,000 Saskatchewan homes — all without emitting any new GHGs.

The company is unveiling its proposal at a public forum in Swift Current, Saskatchewan on July 11.

According to SaskWind, the community-owned facility has the potential to raise around $100-million for the local economy over its 30-year lifetime. The project also has the potential to jumpstart a new industry in Saskatchewan creating as many as 20,000 jobs, SaskWind says.

The European model: communities profit

SaskWind’s proposal uses a model popularized in Germany and Denmark, global leaders in wind energy production. Denmark produced 42 per cent of its electricity from wind in 2015, while wind accounted for 44 per cent of new electricity added to Germany's grid in 2015.

Glennie said community ownership is a huge part of why that’s possible.

Looking at his 15 years in the renewable energy industry, he said the biggest barrier to wind infrastructure development is corporate ownership. But he said the response to his company's proposal has been "overwhelmingly positive."

Glennie said most opposition to wind turbine projects comes from communities who see no economic benefit after their construction. He thinks community opposition usually boils down to the fact that “you have an entity coming in from outside the region, bringing in their own money, investing in a local resource, and benefiting from that when the community doesn’t get much.

“I think when the people realize this is a different scheme — a community scheme — that it’s their money, their resources and they get the profits, people are much much more interested,” Glennie said.

SaskWind would then sell the power to Saskatchewan’s crown-owned energy provider, SaskPower, and give the profits to their initial community investors. If a “power-purchase” agreement is signed with SaskPower, the project can start generating zero-emissions electricity and turn a profit for the community.

The project would seek seed-funding from locals before reaching out to citizens in the rest of the province. Individuals who invest in the project would see an “attractive financial return” on their investment, cutting GHG emissions in the process.

According to Glennie, investing in SaskWind’s wind and solar facility is a lot like buying in shares of any other company. Except under this model, you have a much better idea of how much your rate of return might be.

“This is a very low-risk. You know what the wind resource is year to year and you know what the solar resource is year to year,” Glennie said.

While they don’t have exact numbers on how much each investor could receive on a regular basis, Glennie said it wouldn’t make sense for them not to offer attractive rates of return because “if we don’t, people won’t buy the shares.”

Government estimates place the price per kilowatt hour of electricity produced by wind turbines at less than half the price of coal with carbon capture. Solar is slightly more expensive, but still cheaper than coal.

“We should be able to do wind at the same amount of power for about half the price [as coal with carbon capture]," Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Consultant Mark Bigland-Pritchard said.

The Challenge: will Saskatchewan favour big developers over community ownership?

Glennie said his company has been in negotiations with SaskPower — the province’s crown-owned utilities provider — for two years about the Swift Current project, and has been talking with SaskPower for four years about the community ownership model.

“It was just talk talk talk” until they decided to take their proposal public, according to Glennie.

“Yes, after four years, it does get rather tedious having endless discussions. The point is that SaskPower had gone ahead and announced this major renewable energy policy at the end of last year. As a result, there are a lot of private developers sniffing around here," Glennie said. "And, yeah it’s a little frustrating because as a community we were kind of being shut out and wait until all the out-of-province private developers had their go at it.”

SaskPower Vice-President, Planning, Environment and Sustainable Development Guy Bruce said the company is aware of SaskWind's proposal. He said that while they typically look to larger companies when looking for energy partners, if "smaller projects can be competitive and look promising, I don't see why we wouldn't consider those."

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has pledged to increase renewable energy production to 50 per cent of total generation by 2030. Projects like these are a step in that direction.

“We’re looking at all options. The plan to go to 50 per cent renewables by 2030, wind is going to be the biggest focus,” Bruce said.

A breakdown of projected renewable energy additions to Saskatchewan's energy mix by 2030. Courtesy of SaskWind.

SaskPower wants to boost the province’s solar energy output to 60 megawatts by 2021, with the potential to expand up to 300 by 2030. Glennie said that if Saskatchewan wants to meet its emissions targets, it’s time for the provincial government to take leadership on wind energy.

“Now, solar is slightly more expensive. But even solar is less than the cost of coal with carbon capture. The great advantage of wind and solar, is that they have no carbon dioxide emissions in operations. They are very very viable for reducing carbon emissions,” Glennie said.

SaskPower will issue calls for clean tech project proposals in the fall, with Bruce projects to come online in 2019-2020. SaskWind projects they could complete the project by October 2019 if everything goes as planned.

“This is not just about a $90-million wind and solar project, it’s about the beginning of a $5-billion industry which I think is going to transform this province,” Glennie said.

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