Sand in the Vaseline – Part II

Last week I spoke briefly about the simplicity of the German Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program. I contrasted it with the unnecessary complexity of the Ontario MicroFIT program – a program modeled, if you can believe it, on the German one. I elaborated on just how simple the process of applying for a MicroFIT contract could be, and how far from that ideal the actual application process is. But the maze doesn’t end when you finish your application, submit it to the OPA, and receive initial approval – far from it. There are many other players on this particular field.

MicroFIT is a program that crosses jurisdictional lines and corporate boundaries. However, once again escaping to the perfect world I described last week, it wouldn’t be that difficult to make the process simple without robbing anyone of their sovereignty or trampling on anyone’s rights.

The data you enter would flow auto-magically to all the various players involved – the Ontario Power Authority, the local electricity utility, the local municipality, and the Electrical Safety Authority – without you needing to know who they are or what role they play, and certainly without you having to provide the same information over and over again to each party (and even multiple times to the same party). It wouldn’t matter in what part of the province you happen to reside – your experience, including the time the process takes and the costs you incur, would be the same if you were in Kenora, Cornwall, or Camlachie.

Sadly, that’s not how it works.

After you submit your application, wait several weeks, and finally receive approval from the OPA, you move on to the next player in this process – your local electric utility, or more formally your Local Distribution Company (LDC).

All of the LDCs require a bunch of information that you already entered earlier in the process. For example, exactly 50% of the fields on the Hydro One form are also on the OPA application. Entering this data a second time is a waste, and provides an excellent opportunity to make mistakes.

Of course, someone will defend this by saying that it protects the privacy of applicants. That’s a crock. Most applicants see no difference between the LDC and the OPA, and couldn’t care less anyway. They certainly aren’t going to raise a stink if the OPA shares the information already provided. If the OPA is worried about that, all they need do is add the simple step of requesting permission to share the information for that one specific purpose.

The fees charged by each LDC to install a new electricity meter and hook up a new MicroFIT installation vary dramatically. Hydro One charges $1,500. Guelph Hydro charges $1,000. On the one project I’ve done with them so far, Waterloo North Hydro only charged $464.66 +HST. Is Hydro One really providing an extra $1,000 worth of value?

So much for data redundancy and value for money. Now let’s move on to inconsistency.

There are 76 LDCs operating in Ontario. That means – let me do the math here – 76 different possible experiences you might have as a MicroFIT applicant. I’ve only dealt with five LDCs, but each one is different and each one is an adventure. Interestingly, when I pointed out the inconsistencies in the process to an administrator at one LDC, she told me with some surprise that her company had collaborated with several others to come up with one consistent approach. I have no reason to disbelieve her, but after devising this standard, each one of the other participants must have gone home and gave their newly standardized business model a complete overhaul.

The best of the lot is Hydro One. This is a bit surprising, considering how much flak they typically get from the renewable energy community. The Hydro One process is completely web-based. That is wonderful –the other four LDCs all rely completely on paper forms. One other labour-saving feature of Hydro One’s process is that I don’t need to collect another signature from a prospective customer – that only happens if and when we get a contract offer. Hydro One is unique in that they request the transformer pole ID, but once I learned that, I got in the habit of grabbing this on my first visit to any customer in Hydro One territory. Mind you, although they ask for it, they only use it in a minority of cases. It would be helpful if the system only requested this information if it was actually necessary. Oh, and one more thing – if I’ve submitted the application and Hydro One informs me that I made a mistake, I can’t go back and correct the specific issue. I have to start all over again. You take the good with the bad.

Each LDC has its own quirks. Guelph Hydro asks for a Single Line Drawing, which in our case is identical for every job except for the number and wattage of the panels – information you’ve already supplied on the application form. Why bother gathering it on the SLD as well? Hydro One simplifies this – they ask you to pick from a list of three possible kinds of connection you’re planning, and that dictates which of the three possible drawings is the right one for your case. It would save us some unnecessary extra work if Guelph Hydro would do the same.

Waterloo North Hydro requires that you provide some proof of identification from the applicant. They suggest we use their driver’s license number. Apparently Waterloo is rife with people stealing someone else’s identity and promptly rushing out to apply for a MicroFIT contract under false pretenses. I, for one, would rather not have this information in my possession. I value my customers’ privacy and I wish WNH would accord their prospective suppliers the same respect. Every other LDC we work with does.

Centre Wellington Hydro asks for details regarding our insurance coverage. When I quizzed their contact person, she informed me that it wasn’t really necessary, which begs the question: Why ask for it if you don’t need it?

Here’s an idea: Start with the Hydro One online form. Pass the collection plate among all the remaining 75 LDCs to pay for a data interface that pre-populates the Hydro One form with the information already entered on the OPA website. Then get every LDC using the same process.

How sweet would that be?

Next week: Rules and regulations, and making them work for the benefit rather than the detriment of green energy in Ontario.

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Alex Chapman is a self-titled Renewable Energy Evangelist.He holds a Bachelor of Applied Science in Civil Engineering from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Business Administration from McGill University. In his diverse career he has done project engineering in the Nova Scotia pulp and paper industry, academic research for the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands, submarine pipeline installation in the North Sea for the oil and gas sector, compensation consulting for Canada's largest financial services institutions, and risk management for one of the world's largest professional services firms.Alex has led corporate community service projects, served on the board of directors for a large faith community, and worked on home building projects for impoverished families in Ensenada, Mexico. He has also written, acted, and directed for several community theatre projects. He is fluent in three languages and is working on a fourth. He enjoys being father to a Brady Bunch family of seven children and husband to one fab mama, as well as doing triathlons, Taekwon Do, and snowboarding. He plays nine musical instruments (although not all at the same time). More information can be found in his profile on LinkedIn.He is the Acting Corporate Manager of Community Energy for the City of Guelph, and lives with his family in Everton, Ontario.

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