This essay from Wired on a massive hack on the Ukranian power grid in December makes me want to stock up on diesel for my generator and lay in a supply of cash.

My grandfather loved his axe, and throughout his long life he wielded it with skill and pride. He heated his home with wood he split himself until it made sense to put in an oil furnace. Then he retired his axe and adjusted the thermostat.

My father never thought much of oil heat because it relied upon too many outside factors and might someday let his family down in a crisis. From the time I was big enough to lift a chainsaw I worked with my dad cutting firewood for heat. Much of the time we spent together over the year was devoted to this vital task. By the seventies it made sense to switch to oil heat, but he still insisted upon having a wood stove in his living room.

But during the ice storm it wasn’t the stove that allowed Mom and Dad to stay in their home, it was the generator that electrician Les Parrott bestowed upon them on the first day of the storm. From that time on my dad cherished his 5 kw Honda and the stove sat unused.

It turns out in the last year my sister and I have separately looked into the feasibility of buying solar equipment. As peak oil approaches it just makes sense to have an alternative energy source lined up.

Then realtor Allan Earle sent me an email this week asking me to meet with his clients who would be in the area for a day, so we set up an interview. I wanted to hear what they had to say and possibly get a column out of it.

I had done some reading about Northland Energy, a solar company developing three projects in the Newboro area, and I just assumed these guys would be representatives of this company. No. Joe’s from Tenedos Energy, of Toronto and London. Christian represents JCM Capital of Toronto, which provides funding for Tenedos.

They haven’t bought any farms in the area. That’s another company again. By now I had figured out that they have nothing to do with Renewable Energy, the developer of several projects just outside Smiths Falls.

So my first question was, “Why are you interested in this area, and this property specifically?”

Joe Lasko responded, “Tenedos Energy goes out and locks down sites. JCM provides the money to do that. We identify areas which are the most suitable. This location is of interest because it offers Class 4 land, and a spot close to a transmission station with capacity available.”

Rightly or wrongly, eligibility for Feed In Tarrif funding under the Green Energy Act is contingent upon locating the solar fields on land which is not classified as Class 1, 2, or 3.

The first thing I had done after Alan Earle visited the farm a couple of weeks ago was locate a soil map. Surely enough, on the Canada Land Inventory Agricultural Capability Map (31C9) the area around Young’s Hill is coloured white, indicating Class 1, 2, or 3 land, but Young’s Hill itself is brown on the map, and thus is eligible for FIT funding, regardless of the soil’s fertility. You can find this map quite easily on the Internet.

The Green Energy Act has produced a gold rush in Ontario. The Feed In Tarrif Program has succeeded in attracting world attention and companies such as Tenedos have sprung up to take advantage of the development opportunity. Tenedos personnel branched off from Greta Energy where they had specialized in wind power installations over the last five years in Bosnia, Estonia, Russia, Germany and Vietnam.

The rush is to secure access to class 4 land and a dwindling supply of unused capacity on transmission lines.

I asked Christian Wray what his firm brings to the table. “JCM Capital helps to fill a funding gap in Canada. European capital is cheaper for us because solar has a track record in Europe and there’s just more money available. Germany and Spain have had FIT programs for a decade now. They’re familiar with solar energy and not afraid to invest in it. There are solar farms in Germany that have been operating since the sixties.

“At JCM we have deep finance experience and are able to raise financing in the international markets through a deep network of relationships in this region. We understand what makes renewable projects bankable and can help smaller developers get to this quality threshold.

“Tenedos uses polycrystalline panels, not the new thin-film panels that use less silicon. These have various environmental issues. They’re not as green as the polycrystalline panels which are a proven technology, around since the 1960’s.

“Each developer has its own philosophy: we are focused on using green, proven, financeable products in our projects.”

I fired off a much less theoretical question: “A home generator usually produces about five kilowatts of power per hour. Assuming an hour at mid-day on a sunny day in July, how many sections of solar panel would it take to match that output? How many of these would be mounted on a single pole? Per acre?”

Christian responded, “Canadian Solar on the Internet will give the specs. We use a 230 watt panel, so that would be 21 panels. Various combinations of them get put together, depending upon the engineering of the site. We work with the engineer to determine the best solution for the site.”

Joe and I branched off into an animated discussion of Hunter Thompson’s writing. He did his master’s thesis at Brock on the guy. Allan grew quite restless at this, pointing out that they had other meetings scheduled, and they’d better get under way.

So away they went. Joe and Christian, two bright young guys. Smooth salesmen or business leaders of the future? We’ll have to see.

Power Outage

January 30, 2008

It’s been a day of power interruptions. Mom returned home from Portland today to report that the post office couldn’t give her a phone card because the power was off all the way to Lombardy. Forfar seemed fine, so I checked that the generator was gassed and plugged in and headed for home to nurse a cold.

This afternoon at 5:30 my computer screen faded to black and the lights came back on at about 1/3 intensity. The energy-saving bulbs didn’t look much different, though, until one started to smell really bad and quit. (It returned to service when the power came back on, though, to give it credit.) Not wanting another computer meltdown I pulled the power cord out of the processor, shut off the furnace and the refrigerator, and settled in to await developments.

Bet had just arrived home with groceries, happy that she had cleared the supermarket before things shut down.

I’ve never seen it as dark in Smiths Falls as it was at 6:30 this evening. By 7:35 I had had enough — nothing to do without electricity, eh? — so I jumped in the truck to retrieve the little generator from the farm and stockpile some gas. Who knows how long these things will last? The only working traffic light in town was the last one on the highway. Just past it one service station was lit up and pumping gas to a lineup of cars.

Information was scarce and the speaker a bit insincere. The cashier said, “A little bird told me the power will be on by 9:00 or 9:30 this evening.” Uh, right. I decided to get the generator, just in case.

Once at the farm I loaded up all of the goodies, returned twice for things I had forgotten, and headed for home to the country tunes of Y101.1. All I learned from that is that It woulda been cheaper to keep her around. Y101.1 programing must be recorded in advance. Here we were in the biggest emergency to hit Smiths Falls since the ice storm and they just kept running corny country songs, car ads, and promotions for a tropical getaway.

I felt a stirring in my pocket. The phone! Bet called to tell me that the power was back on. With great relief I glided into town, chuckling at the lines of cars aimlessly touring the parking lots of the fast-food restaurants, trying to find one that had remained open. Then I learned to dodge the disappointed customers: they weren’t looking very carefully when returning, caffeine-less, to the highway.

Bet had everything up and running by the time I returned. Frankly I had dreaded coaxing that little generator to life in the dark. It only likes to start in warm weather, and I’ve never actually hooked it to our furnace: the power it makes is o.k. for a reciprocating saw, but I’m a bit reluctant to feed it to an expensive gas boiler in the middle of winter.