Nova Scotia, a coal-powered Canadian province of less than a million people, plans to enact a feed-in tariff for small-scale renewable energy generation — such as wind and tidal turbines — as part of a scheme to become a world leader in clean energy by 2020.
The decision is another example of how provinces and states are moving forward with aggressive environmental agendas while national efforts to cut global-warming emissions remain a long shot for passage.
Local advocates hailed the move as progress. It "points the ship in the right direction," said Tim Weis, director of renewable energy and efficiency at the Calgary-based Pembina Institute.
But the devil could be in the details of the regulations.
"There are many important details to be ironed out in the regulations," Weis said. "Will it be a one-size-fits-all price, like Ontario, or, will it be sophisticated enough, like Germany or France, to encourage widespread development based on different quality resources?" Weis told SolveClimate.
Paul Gipe, a California-based expert in wind power, called it "a good first step" but cautioned, "it is only a first step."
Under the community-based feed-in tariff system, or COMFIT, communities such as First Nations, municipalities and co-operatives would be paid fixed rates for the electricity they feed into the local distribution system from local renewable energy projects — projects which otherwise would be too expensive for them to install.
Detailed rules for what qualifies as "community-based," however, have not yet been determined and are under examination by the Utility and Review Board (UARB).
"The definition of community still needs to be finalized," said Weis. "As it stands, farmers are not specifically addressed."
The lack of mention of farmers is a "glaring omission," said Gipe. Under the Ontario scheme, for instance, farmers qualify for a one-cent subsidy bonus on top of the feed-in tariff.
Despite the lack of details on key areas, including rates, no one seems to doubt the government's commitment to the program.
A Model for North America?
In total, Nova Scotia is calling for 300 megawatts of new renewable capacity by 2015. Of that amount, the province is targeting 100 megawatts to come from community-based projects by 2012.
"That's a target; that's not a cap," said Gipe.
The lack of a cap means COMFIT has the green light to grow if demand is robust enough. Gipe called that a "terrific" development.
"This could be a model for the rest of North America," he said.
The big question mark is whether the province's power grid connections can handle the boom.
Most rural communities in Nova Scotia are not connected to the high-voltage transmission grid. The coming wave of community wind turbines and other projects would instead have to connect to the older distribution system, which can only absorb a limited amount of new capacity.
"The distribution system in Nova Scotia is really weak," said Gipe.
The government said it will conduct a "technical study" on each potential COMFIT project before that project can plug into the distribution grid.
"This can complicate and slow projects significantly," said Weis. "Obviously you need to ensure the system can tolerate whatever project is being proposed, but there appears to be no mechanism that would require some sort of system upgrade in order to accommodate projects."
The transmission challenge "adds a lot of uncertainty to which projects may or may not be
viable," Weiss added.
The Nova Scotia cabinet is expected to implement the tariff regulations this summer.
Worldwide, some 45 jurisdictions boast feed-in tariffs that support small-scale renewable power generation, including the Canadian provinces of Prince Edward Island and Ontario. In Europe, broader feed-in tariffs have propelled Germany and Spain to be global market leaders in solar and wind power.
Solar is not a part of the Nova Scotia system because of its high cost, the province said. Wind is seen as the tariff's primary focus, but COMFIT will also target biomass, tidal, wave and in-stream hydroelectric power.
"It would be good to see the process opened up to other technologies," said Weis, "or at least they should have a mechanism to apply to get into the FIT [program]."
Specifically, Weiss said that on-farm biogas, municipal sewage biogas and municipal landfill gas are all "notably absent" from the plan.
25% by 2015
The COMFIT announcement came as part of Nova Scotia's Renewable Electricity Plan, developed with the University of Dalhousie in Halifax.
The plan turns into law the province's marquee commitment to get 25 percent of its power from renewable resources by 2015. It also lays out an aspirational target goal to increase that to 40 percent by 2020.
Hitting that 40 percent mark would cut coal consumption in half in a decade's time and provide enough renewable energy to power 500,000 homes, the report said.
Nova Scotia currently gets 90 percent of its power from fossil fuels — almost all of that from imported coal.
"Coal made more sense when it was mined here in Nova Scotia, but now we buy it from others," the report said. "This over-reliance on a single fuel source weakens our energy security, binds us to the volatile and upward trend of international prices, and drains wealth away from the province."
Currently, 11 percent of provincial electricity comes from renewable resources, mainly hydroelectric power.
"Nova Scotia will be one of the most aggressive jurisdictions in the world in converting from fossil fuels to renewable energy," the report said.
Such a clean energy leap will not come for free.
While $1.5 billion in green investment dollars is expected to flow into the Nova Scotia economy, electricity bills will rise 1 to 2 percent per year to 2015, the report said. This would add an average of approximately $10 to $20 to the average electricity bill of a single family home. When used for heating, the increase would be closer to $20-$40.
The government called it a down payment on energy and even financial security.
"Moving towards local renewable sources will help stabilize fuel prices in the future — protecting consumers from both the volatility of fossil fuel pricing and the future costs of carbon," the report said.
"Not making this transition would shackle ratepayers to the wild price swings and the relentless upward march of international energy markets."