Almost eight months after being asked for support to erect solar panels on the roof of the new recreation centre, city council has given the project a green light.
But it was far from unanimous and municipal politicians did not go as far as the volunteer-led group hoped for.
Orillia Community Energy (OCE), a grass-roots citizens group, made a pitch to council in April asking for approval to develop a 125-kilowatt, 11,000-square-foot solar installation on the flat roof of the West Street complex expected to open later this month.
The cost of the solar panel project is estimated to be $300,000. OCE proposes to raise two-thirds of that cost - $210,000 - from the public and private sectors. The city is being asked to ante up the remaining $90,000. The group suggested the city could do three annual instalments of $30,000.
In July, at a council committee meeting, councillors voted against the plan, citing the province’s decision to pull the plug on feed-in-tariff (FIT) rebates that made producing solar energy profitable.
A week later, council chose not to ratify that decision and deferred a decision pending its strategic planning exercise. After that exercise was complete, politicians again delayed a decision - pushing it to budget deliberations.
And, at the end of that process, finally, councillors agreed to commit $30,000 to the project, but did not make a multi-year commitment.
Coun. Tim Lauer championed the idea, but thought a $30,000 commitment was enough - for now. He cautioned his colleagues about trying to “wrap this” idea in a plan.
“Nothing kills a good idea faster than a plan,” said the long-time Ward 4 councillor, noting the idea first was floated at a Sunshine Initiative forum about six years ago.
He said those behind the plan have poured a lot of energy into the idea. He said the $30,000 is equivalent to the annual savings the city realizes on its other solar panel projects (at Orillia Power and Nordia).
He also reminded council that there was an educational component to the project as there would be an interactive display in the foyer of the Orillia Recreation Centre that explained the project and its impact.
According to a staff report, one of the primary impacts is a 3% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the facility.
“A 3 per cent total greenhouse gas emission reduction is significant,” said Coun. David Campbell. “That matters. That counts. Also, we’re looking at getting a $300,000 project for $90,000.
“I think this is the type of thing that, when it comes to climate change, we can’t just look at the dollars,” said the first-term Ward 1 councillor. “I realize we always have to be cognizant of the dollars and take that into account and it is the taxpayers' money we’re spending ... but I also think if we don’t do something … we’re going to have much bigger issues than $90,000.”
Coun. Jay Fallis, who had hoped council would contribute $90,000 during this budget cycle, said he was in favour of annual contributions.
“I want to emphasize this is a big win for our city if we can bring this forward,” said Fallis. “It’s a big environmental win and contributes to our city’s infrastructure. I am fully in support.”
Councillors Rob Kloostra, Mason Ainsworth and Ted Emond all spoke against funding the project.
They cited the end of the FIT program, noting it was, essentially, not profitable to invest in solar energy at this time.
Emond said the city could always revisit the idea at a later time.
“There’s really very little economic benefit (that) comes from doing this,” said Emond. “It’s basically a (public relations) program to demonstrate we’re interested in climate change. It’s pretty expensive PR.”
He also stressed the city is doing its part to combat climate change in other ways.
“We are spending $2.5 million of taxpayers money to put in LED (streetlights) this year. We’re taking a huge step toward a reduction in greenhouse gas … We’re doing a lot,” Emond said.
Ainsworth said it was more about the lack of economic benefit.
“Essentially, this is something that looks cool, it sounds great but is essentially a wash at the end of the day and is not saving us money,” noted Ainsworth, who questioned what a 3% greenhouse gas reduction actually means.
“It’s not really helping that much. This money could be better spent elsewhere,” he said, noting Sustainable Orillia, the umbrella group overseeing the project, has done “great” things through inexpensive forums and exhibits.
Orillia Mayor Steve Clarke reminded council they decided to construct the roof over the gymnasium at the recreation centre to support solar panels.
Coun. Pat Hehn said council needs to “walk the talk” when it comes to combating climate change.
“When we first built our rec centre, as a council, we took the lead and built on a brownfield and won an award for that,” said Hehn. “ We said if councils aren't willing to take the lead, who will do it? The same is true with solar panels ... As a council, it’s up to us to take the lead.”
City CAO Gayle Jackson said OCE had requested $90,000. She said staff will “circle back and have a discussion with them” about the city’s decision to only commit $30,000.
Council’s “allocating $30,000 to this project shows there is a desire to move this forward,” said Jackson.