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Where’s the largest operational solar photovoltaic facility in the world? Not in California, Spain, Italy, or any other sunny location. Strangely enough, it’s in Ontario, a Canadian province known more for its long, snowy winters than its cloudless skies.

The sprawling 97-megawatt facility, located just outside the city of Sarnia and built by thin-film manufacturer First Solar, has been operating since October by Enbridge, a natural gas pipeline company based in Alberta. It’s an unusual sight in a region better known for its chemical refineries, but it’s also indicative of a solar boom that has made Ontario one of the fastest-growing markets in North America.

The growth comes at a cost. Ontario’s capital, Toronto, gets 20 per cent less sunlight per year than Los Angeles, meaning that right from the start projects are one-fifth less economical. So in 2006 the province launched a program that pays 42 cents per kilowatt-hour as part of 20-year power-purchase agreements. First Solar was among a number of developers to jump at the opportunity, seizing more than 300 megawatts worth of projects.

In the fall of 2009 Ontario replaced the program with a much more comprehensive feed-in tariff program, as part of a strategy to lure green manufacturing and investment while helping the province meet its goal of phasing out all coal-fired generation by 2014. The government maintains that the program is on track to create 50,000 green-collar jobs.

The program, modeled after similar programs in Europe but unusual in North America,  pays 44.3 cents per kilowatt-hour for multi-megawatt solar projects and up to 80.2 cents for rooftop systems below 10 kilowatts in size. (By comparison, Ontario residents pay about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour during peak times when solar panels are most productive, and when peak demand has typically been met by a mix of coal and natural gas.)

With those prices, it is little surprise that Ontario has been deluged with applications. In less than 18 months, more than 30,000 projects have filed for program approval, and so far, contracts totalling more than 1,400 megawatts have been offered, on top of 300 megawatts to be built under the older program. Not bad for a province that five years ago had less than a megawatt of grid-connected solar.

Some industry watchers worry the program will fall victim to its own success. For example, utilities are having trouble keeping up with connection requests. In January, more than 1,000 projects were put on hold because of grid-capacity constraints.

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Credit: Enbridge

Tagged: Energy, renewable energy, solar power, photovoltaics, First Solar, thin-film solar cells, photovoltaic facility

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