Food versus “power” on the Oak Ridges Moraine: Toronto locavores silent as solar opponents twist in the wind

Should agriculturally fertile land be used to grow food? Most people would say yes, especially if that land is located where the growing season is short. The entire locavore movement is based on utilizing as much local space as possible for growing food. Well, Toronto Ontario is 43.6° north of the equator. This means that any agriculturally fertile land in or near it definitely has a short growing season: there is a time of the year in Toronto, called winter, when there is simply not enough solar energy reaching the area to help plants in outdoor soil to keep from freezing let alone photosynthesize. So those who own agriculturally fertile land in or near Toronto must take full advantage of that time of the year, called summer, when there is enough of that solar energy.

The Toronto Star yesterday reported on a land-use spat on the Oak Ridges Moraine northeast of Toronto, where entrepreneurs want to occupy roughly half a square kilometer of prime agricultural land on the moraine to make way for a 10-megawatt solar panel farm. The Star piece refers to this as a “large-scale infrastructure project” even though the farm could be expected to produce less than 15 million kilowatt-hours of electricity over an entire year.

(To get this figure yourself, multiply 10 megawatts by 8,760—the number of hours in a year—then multiply that product by 17 percent, which is the capacity factor the Ontario Power Authority gives for solar farms near Toronto. Then multiply by 1,000 to convert megawatt-hours to kilowatt-hours.)

Fifteen million kilowatt-hours per year does not make this solar farm a “large-scale infrastructure project,” at least in the electric power generation sector. In the electric power generation sector, that is a very small amount of power, which makes this a very small-scale infrastructure project. For comparison, it took just four hours for Ontario’s fleet of hydropower generators to produce 15 million kWh between midnight and four a.m. this morning. And it took the provincial nuclear fleet not even two hours to generate 15 million kWh. See Table 2 in the left-hand sidebar.

This is why the feed in tariff rate promised to owners of solar power installations is so ridiculously high: 44.3 cents per kWh. With such a terrible capacity factor—17 percent!—there is no way those owners could prevent massive financial losses, let alone make a profit, if they were to get a rate anything less than that. This begs the question of why Ontarians on fixed incomes, typically poor seniors and single mothers, are being forced, through their electricity bills, to finance the lifestyles of solar “entrepreneurs.” But that’s a separate issue.

However, I take the Star’s point: since the proposed 10-MW farm would occupy more than half a square kilometer, it would be a fairly big installation. Consider that the largest Wal-Mart Supercenter occupies a bit more than one-fifth of a square kilometer. The proposed solar farm would be more than twice as big.

Which is likely why the proposal is being opposed by the farmers on the Oak Ridges Moraine who would be the solar farm’s neighbors. The Star piece quotes one of these prospective neighbors as saying “[this is] an inventory of land that’s disappearing in this country,”

He is absolutely right. Why should half a square kilometer of prime, and rare, agricultural land be used to generate a tiny amount of electricity that we could easily get from another plant, at a far better price?

If recent history is any guide, the solar opponents on the moraine will receive zero support from the mainstream environmental lobby. The “greens” sold out the actual environment when they decided to try to help the natural gas industry expand its market in Ontario. They want Ontario’s nuclear generators, which an hour ago were producing 11,164 MW of electricity (selling for less than 6 cents per kWh—which is not even one-seventh the rate for groundmounted solar), with natural gas-fired ones. Item 1 in the right-hand sidebar of this blog gives an idea of how that would shake out pollution-wise: if the alleged greens had their way, Ontario’s power generation sector would have dumped 7,365 tons of pollution into the air in that hour. As it was, only 1,225 tons were dumped; most of them from gas-fired plants.

The greens sold out the Holland Marsh, another area of prime agricultural land near Toronto, a few years ago when they worked to locate a gas-fired peaker plant on it: this was over the objections of local growers whom the greens in Ontario Municipal Board hearings shouted down and called NIMBYs.

What is really disappointing is that the Toronto locavore movement has been silent on this issue. You would think an issue like this would be a rallying call for them.

I wish the solar opponents on the Oak Ridges Moraine good luck. They are going to need it, because they are pretty much on their own.

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7 years ago

Why don’t the solar advocates do something useful, such as replace tinted curtain-wall glazing on office towers with microperforated thin-film PV on glass which has similar attenuation/shading properties but generates electricity in the bargain?  Why not put it on strip-mall roofs, and use it for awnings over sidewalks instead of canvas?  That would also put the power generation right where it is consumed.

Alas, they will never see the irony.

7 years ago
Reply to  Engineer-Poet

I don’t think the solar window thing is here yet. You need batteries to store it (for example you don’t need the light as much during the day). But you need them after the sun is gone.. Besides, grid electricity has no capital cost for the consumer and it’s inexpensive…

7 years ago
Reply to  darcy

You don’t actually need to store electricity AS electricity.  If you have an on-going demand for something that’s storable but usually provided by electricity (such as cooling for a server farm or warehouse), you can turn juice into ice and store that instead.

Of course, such low-hanging fruit is limited.

7 years ago
Reply to  Steve Aplin

You could also store electricity as chemical energy, e.g. as electrolyzed hydrogen locked with carbon to form a… hydrocarbon.

Converting water and oxidized carbon to hydrocarbons means removing a lot of entropy… and dumping it as waste heat.  The losses are in addition to the capital cost of equipment, and there’s no place on earth it’s economic.  If you want hydrocarbons, it’s cheapest to start with something that already contains reduced carbon and hydrogen.

If you need cooling, you can cool something else to save for later using more or less the same equipment (ditto heat).  Making fuels to burn in engines is far more complex, indirect and inefficient.  If you can e.g. move all DHW load to the overnight hours using a “heat battery”, that’s more likely to work than electrolytic hydrogen fuel.

But electricity storage is more a problem for the big generators and especially nuclear, because of surplus baseload generation (SBG).

I don’t think it’s a problem.  It’s an incentive to find new uses for the wee-hours generation.  One idea I had is recycling concrete.  Electric heat dehydrates Portland cement, converting concrete back into dry powder cement and aggregate.  Kilns could be loaded days or weeks ahead of time and operated by computers at night, with the day shift taking care of storing the separated materials and reloading.  If there was a tax on carbon, it might even be competitive with new cement.

Catherine Faint
7 years ago

Thank you Steve, I am the neighbour next to this Class One Solar Farm. It will border my properties on three sides (about 35 acres)all Agri 1 land. Some of this project will sit right on top of the Scugog Headwaters and Oak Ridges Moraine, which supplies water not only to the local residents and Township, but will impact the water tables that feed at least 250,000 people on the moraine and more. The next Tribunal is September 10th/13 at the Port Perry Council Chambers.
Wondering if I may quote you on some of these facts?

Water Wind
7 years ago

If this was a proposal for a 142 acre shopping centre or factory or quarry or dump on the Moraine, the locavores would be signing petitions right and left, maybe even writing letters and holding and attending rallies.

Thank you for shining the spotlight on this hideous hypocrisy. The OPA just published the full report from its recent round of consultations of the siting of large scale ‘green’ energy projects, including a summary of face-to-face feedback, web survey results and written submissions, posted on the OPA-IESO website at http://www.onregional-planning-and-siting-dialogue.ca. The survey result to this question…. “What types of locations are best suited for large energy infrastructure projects”.. 67% said Industrial Lands, followed by 11% Commercial Lands – Agricultural Areas only garnered 2.3% support.

7 years ago
Reply to  Water Wind

Maybe the thing to do is to attack the feed-in tariff as wasteful.  Without that, the whole thing would just vanish.

Shelly Godden
7 years ago

Don’t sing the praises of nuclear energy to me. If you factor batteries etc and probably how few sunny days we actually get in this area of Ontario – I doubt this is financially viable. I’m not sure I’d want a wind turbine near my house either but what I do know is we have handed industry all the prime agricultural land in this fair province and it is now paved over. All this stuff should have gone where food can’t grow and roof tops is a great option. We have to save farms and farmers or you will be stuck with GM food that is bred to store forever and stack like square tomatoes – minus the vit. C