This week, Ontario’s new Feed-in Tariff (FIT) program kicks in. The program sets specific prices that the province will pay to people who develop their own renewable power sources and sell the energy back to the grid. The key idea is that it sets up a guaranteed return on investment for people to build renewable capacity, and at a premium price, too.

The prices are set at different levels for different types of power generation and for different sizes of installations, with each price point designed to make it attractive for people to invest (with presumably some weighting in favour of the power mix the province would like to aim for). For example, a homeowner who puts solar panels on the roof will be paid 80c per kilowatt hour ($0.80/kWh), with the price guaranteed for 20 years. That’s for installations lower than 10kW; the price goes down for bigger installations (e.g. for 44c/kWh for rooftop solar larger than 500kW).

Current electricity prices in Ontario are around $0.08/Kwh, so the province is paying 10 times the current market rate for small-scale solar generation. Which makes is a pretty major subsidy. However, the entire program is intended to be revenue neutral. The creation of a large network of small suppliers may prevent the province having to build so many new power stations (the province recently turned down bids of $26 billion for new nuclear plants), and allow it phase out the existing coal plants within the next few years.

So what does this mean for the homeowner? A typical household solar installation will be well below 10kW. I grabbed a few ballpark figures from the web. A small household solar installation might generate about 12kWh per day, i.e. about $10 per day, or about $3,500 per year at the FiT rate; while the average household consumption is about 12,000kWh per year, or about $1,000 at current market prices. So the panels will pay for themselves within a few years, and then become a source of revenue!

The idea of a Feed-in Tariff program isn’t new – they’ve worked well in Europe for a number of years, and indeed the province of Ontario has had one in place since 2006. However the old program was criticised for setting rates too low, especially for small-scale generation; the new program increases the rates dramatically – for example the new small scale solar rate is twice the old rate.

Full details of the new program are at the Ontario Power Authority’s site.

I’m teaching our introductory software engineering course this term, for which the students will be working on a significant software development project over the term. The main aim of the course is to get the students thinking about and using good software development practices and tools, and we organise the term project as an agile development effort, with a number of small iterations during the term. The students have to figure out for  themselves what to build at each iteration.

For a project, I’ve challenged the students to design new uses for the Canadian Climate Change Senarios Network. This service makes available the data on possible future climate change scenarios from the IPCC datasets, for a variety of end users. The current site allows users to run basic queries over the data set, and have the results returned either as raw data, or in a variety of visualizations. The main emphasis is on regional scenarios for Canada, so the service offers some basic downscaling, and ability to couple the scenarios with other regional data sources, such as data from weather monitoring stations in the region. However, to use the current service, you need to know quite a bit about the nature of the data: it asks you which models you’re interested in; which years you want data for (assumes you know something about 30-year averages); which scenarios you want (assumes you know something about the standard IPCC scenarios); which region you want (in latitude and longitude); and which variables you want (assumes you know something about what these variables measure). The current design reflects the needs of the primary user group for which the service was developed – (expert) researchers working on climate impacts and adaptation.

The challenge for the students on my course is to extend the service for new user groups. For example, farmers who want to know something about likely effects of climate change on growing seasons, rainfall and heat stress in their local area. High school students studying climate and weather. Politicians who want to understand what the latest science tells us about the impacts of climate change on the constituencies they represent. Activists who want to present a simple clear message to policymakers about the need for policy changes. etc.

I have around 60 students on the course, working in teams of 4. I’m hoping that the various teams will come up with a variety of ideas for how to make this dataset useful to new user groups, and I’ve challenged them to be imaginative. But more suggestions are always welcome…

This post by Paul Gilding sums up my experience very well:

Some days my head hurts, as I shift between what feels like two parallel universes in the climate change debate. First I have these conversations with world-class scientists who calmly lay out the scientific view of the various risks posed by climate change and their relative scale and likelihoods. They tell me the science says it is almost certain the impacts will be serious and destabilising for our society and our economy. The science also describes a lower level of risk – which they find hard to quantify but generally say between 10% and 50% – that the impacts of climate change will be catastrophic, perhaps even civilisation threatening. This could include widespread famine, war and economic collapse. Not certain, but a reasonable possibility.

It is very clear when you listen to these scientists and read their peer-reviewed reports that, on any calm and rational analysis, we should be preparing for a carbon reduction war. Yes, a war – with all that implies about focus, effort and sacrifice. The threat posed is, after all, a “clear and present danger” and the response should be strong, global and immediate. This should be a ‘whatever it takes’ moment.

Then I shift into the parallel universe.

I spend time in corporate boardrooms and listen to the analysis of business executives who explain how we mustn’t damage the economy by “over-reacting”….

Go read the rest.

The Global Campaign for Climate Action is an umbrella organisation, based in Montreal, which aims to coordinate many diverse environmentalist and science groups (including Greenpeace, WWF, Union of Concerned Scientists, Oxfam, 350.org, and many others) to focus attention on the need for an ambitious, fair and binding climate treaty at the Copenhagen talks in December. Their campaign leading up to the Copenhagen meeting is called TckTckTck, and it promises a bold series of actions over the next few months.

The first of these is next week: Global Wake Up Call (which nicely fits with the “sleepwalking into disaster” idea), and ties in with the premier of The Age of Stupid on Sept 21. The idea is to coordinate the sound of bells and telephones ringing around the world at 12:18pm on Monday, as the wake up call. There’s quite a few in Toronto – including one at Dundas Square. I’ve no idea if this flashmob style protesting works, but I guess there’s one way to find out. Anyone fancy a walk down to Dundas Square on Monday lunchtime?

Update: The Age of Stupid is being screened at the Royal Theatre on Monday night, 7pm.

Here’s an interesting competition (with cash prizes), organized by the Usability Professionals’ Association, to develop a new concept or product, with user-centred design principles, that aims to cut energy consumption or reduce pollution.

And here’s another: A Video Game Creation Contest to create a playable video game that uses earth observations to help address environmental problems.