New initiatives in the green energy sector

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Green energy is no baby any more. These days it's more like an over-achieving graduate student. The sector that has birthed itself in a climate of denial, financial and fiscal crisis and policy ping-pong is doing surprisingly well despite getting its higher education in this school of hard knocks.

Innovation is still the essential ingredient required to bring all the pieces together to make clean energy and money, too. Two new projects that are coming to light right now give a great glimpse of the outside-the-box approaches that are bridging the new industry's needs for breadth, resilience and, above all, financing. Thank goodness, because that's what we still so desperately need.

But don't bother explaining climate science or anything with a long-term vision to Toronto's mayors or PC leader Tom Hudak. The three would like to kill these babies, but can't. At least not quite yet.

Climatespark.ca is the brainchild of the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, which is celebrating its 20th year of creating economic opportunities while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution in the city. Of course, it's therefore waiting to find out where it sits on the Ford chopping block, but that isn't stopping the city agency from powering ahead.

Launching today, Climatespark.ca offers social innovators with an idea that might reduce greenhouse gases the chance to submit their project online to a kind of open-call Dragon's Den process. The public gets to comment on these business plans, give feedback and eventually vote. The top 10 will go to a panel of experts who will refine them, consult for free and narrow the field some more.

But what takes this online innovation far beyond the ho-hum is that TAF and its project partners have aggregated a group of grantors and funders with a half-million-dollar jackpot looking for investment opportunities. This speaks to the level of financial savvy and connectivity that TAF has brought together.

Julia Langer, TAF's CEO, has had lots of experience supporting early small steps that have made a huge difference. The organization, founded by Jack Layton and Tony O'Donohue, made the initial financing deal that brought Enwave's hugely successful deep lake water-cooling system to life. It provided the first financing for AutoShare.

And it made the initial loan for condo developer Tridel to experiment with the green building initiatives now part of all its new projects.

"But you can't know ahead of time which project will have huge impacts," says Langer. "You have to throw the spaghetti against the wall. You have to be open to new ideas."

Hence climatespark.ca, where my vote on day one goes to contender ZooShare Biogas Co-operative Inc. It's a non-profit renewable energy co-operative "developing a 500 kW community-owned biogas plant on the grounds of the Toronto Zoo, turning the zoo's annual manure output and food waste from grocery stores into electricity, heat, fertilizer and cash for the zoo."

Very cool, but as I say, this is just day one.

SolarShare is another inspiring example of financing and social innovation smarts that launched just last month. It's not just a group of 18 high-functioning, community-based solar installations around Ontario that will generate decent revenue for the next 20 years or more (thanks to the Green Energy Act feed-in tariff endangered by Hudak). It's also the best place you could invest $1,000 in these troubled times.

The community bonds issued by SolarShare offer a 5 per cent return per annum in return for a five-year commitment. And once a few more regulatory hurdles are jumped in the next few months, larger investment amounts will be accepted, and they will be RRSP- and Tax-Free Savings Account-eligible.

The brains and brawn behind SolarShare is TREC, the Toronto Renewable Energy Co-operative, which planned and built the wind turbine on the Ex grounds in partnership with Toronto Hydro a dozen years back. They then launched WindShare, a co-op with 450 members who jointly own and run the turbine with Toronto Hydro.

TREC is aiming high with this bond offering that allows SolarShare to raise up to $10 million for community-based solar installations.

These funds will only be used for already established and built solar projects that are currently producing revenue. Even at 5 per cent, this money is cheaper than the extremely high-cost venture capital tapped at the far riskier start-up phase for community solar projects, a fact that speaks to the financing challenges faced by the industry.

But TREC has turned that challenge into an opportunity to create a highly attractive and affordable community investment vehicle. On a more subtle level, making TREC's experience available to numerous projects has allowed community-based, democratically run renewable energy initiatives to come to life.

Ultimately, the challenge for each of us now, with the help of our smart green energy friends, is how we use our own renewable human resources to invest in a future we can bear to imagine.

This article was first published in NOW Magazine.

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