Sault Ste. Marie Ontario was known for locks that allowed for shipping between Lake Huron and Lake Superior. It was also known as a major steel producer. It has fallen on hard times with the industrial and economic restructuring that affected so many cities and regions in all our countries. Peter Kuitenbrouwer writes an encouraging article in Canada’s National Post how the city is starting to revive – even a little – as the city diversifies to a greener approach.
Renewing the Soo: How alternative energy investments are transforming Sault Ste. Marie
For a city that uses the slogan “Naturally Gifted,” the Soo’s downtown is a dispiriting place, notable for cracked parking lots and empty storefronts, which stand out like missing teeth. Even tattoo parlours have gone under.
The Sault Star brims with bad news. The town’s main employer, Essar Steel Algoma Inc., is in bankruptcy protection for the third time since 1990. People fear the head office of Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. will leave town if the provincial gambling entity is privatized. And a front-page headline reads: “Rats still confound council.”
It is a surprise, then, to turn a corner in Sault Ste. Marie and arrive at Heliene Inc., a spotless, quiet manufacturing plant where workers in blue T-shirts, hairnets and purple rubber gloves must hop to keep pace with the automatic soldering machines, laminator robots and caulking robots that build solar panels, 24 hours a day.
“We are a steel town, but steel is a cyclical business,” said Heliene manufacturing worker Matthew Halpin, 27. “This place is pretty steady. We are doing well.”
A few years ago, Sault Ste. Marie council branded the city as the “Alternative Energy Capital of North America.” The slogan is a stretch. Even so, investments in renewable energy — the solar panel factory, wind farms and solar farms — have begun to transform the Soo. Even the Batchewana First Nation has its own wind farms and a utility-scale battery project will open next year.
The Soo, population 70,000, already exports nearly twice the power it consumes. And all of it is clean, renewable energy.
“Sault Ste. Marie’s future is in diversifying its economic strategy and in really doing what it does best, and that is in energy,” said Kieran O’Neill, a 30-year-old smart energy business strategist at the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre.
On the downside, these solar and wind farms employ very few people, and most revenue flows to out-of-town investors. O’Neill said the community must own renewable energy assets if it wants to prosper. Some people are doing just that.
Jim Cairns’s newlywed young wife was skeptical when he suggested they build a solar-powered house down a winding gravel road in the bush 15 kilometres north of Sault Ste. Marie.
“I wasn’t sure at first,” said Chantal Cairns, nine months pregnant, standing amid boxes in the home the couple moved into a week before, in late July. “I was worried about not having enough power for everyday life. As long as I can use my curling iron, I’m okay.”
So far, so good. Power flows from 30 Heliene solar panels mounted among the blueberry bushes on the hilltop, and the house hums comfortably.
“I have always been interested in green alternatives,” said Jim, 31, plant manager at Heliene. “For myself, it was a bit of a no-brainer. To bring power from the hydro lines into where we wanted to build would have been about the same cost as it was to put in a solar system.”
The solar installation cost $50,000. “It was lots of research, lots of carrying things up this mountain,” he said. “We took down about 200 trees.”
On the plus side, “moving forward, I don’t have a hydro bill every month.”
There is one wrinkle: Sault Ste. Marie gets a lot of snow; someone will have to hike up to clear the solar panels.
“That would be my husband’s job,” Chantal said. “He will have to go up there and take the snow off so the sun can hit the solar panels.”
The boss at the solar power plant that made those solar panels is Martin Pochtaruk, 51, a native of Argentina. After studying theoretical physics, Pochtaruk spent his career at Tenaris, a steel pipe manufacturer, in Argentina, Italy, the United States and then Sault Ste. Marie. Pochtaruk’s wife, Sofia Silberberg, became a math professor at Algoma University. In 2004, Tenaris proposed to transfer Martin a fourth time.
“I came home and said, ‘We are moving again,’” Pochtaruk recalls. “My wife smiled, and without losing her cool, said, ‘Come and visit anytime.’ So we stayed.”
After working at Algoma Steel, Pochtaruk devised a new career. Ontario’s 2009 Green Energy Act offered a premium for electricity generated with solar panels made in Ontario. In 2010, Pochtaruk co-founded Heliene, with a $12-million investment and a $2.5-million provincial loan.
His is a strange success story combining Japanese robots, a Spanish lamination machine, U.S. glass and Thai solar cells, fused together with Canadian sweat in the bush of northern Ontario.
Somehow, it works; Justin Trudeau, the prime minister, visited Heliene during last year’s election.
“We are having a decent year,” Pochtaruk said. “The dollar is helping with our fixed costs.” Heliene exports two thirds of its panels to the United States.
Soo’s advantages include cheaper rent, workers willing to accept lower salaries than in southern Ontario, and robotics engineers from Lake Superior State University in Michigan, which also trains skilled workers for Detroit’s auto industry.
The area also offers proximity to the U.S. Midwest. The U.S. will buy US$5-billion worth of solar panels this year. Trucks can breeze across the International Bridge in a few minutes and get directly on the I-75 to Florida, or Route 28 to Duluth, Minn.
But Pochtaruk, who speaks five languages and travels constantly to promote Heliene’s plant, said he’ll need more support if the company is to grow and succeed.
“The politicians showed up when there was a photo op, but they never came back,” he said. “Hopefully, with a national energy strategy and a tax on carbon, eventually we are going to have a green economy, but it is too slow. I need to feed 80 families every month.”
There are plenty more families than that in Sault Ste. Marie depending on renewable energy’s future success.
Wind blows steadily off Lake Superior, the world’s largest lake; along its shore, moose, deer and bear roam the woods under 126 whirring turbines of the Prince wind farm. Jim Deluzio, vice-president of operations at Brookfield Renewable Energy Group, which owns the $400-million farm, gives a tour in his new Ford Explorer. Brookfield also produces power from hydro dams here.
“Sault Ste. Marie has always had a lot of renewable energy,” Deluzio said.
Historically, the Soo used that power to drive industries including St. Mary’s Paper, which lasted 137 years before it closed in 2011. Now, much of the power leaves town. Brookfield employs just 90 people here — not many considering it produces a gigawatt of electricity, enough to power Halifax.
Nearby, the sun glints off vast fields of solar panels owned by Canadian Solar Inc. of Guelph, Ont. A worker steers a pickup truck among the panels on a routine inspection.
“There were a lot of jobs created to build these assets, but very little revenue flows back to the community,” said O’Neill from the Sault Ste. Marie Innovation Centre. “I am working on a community energy plan, to look for community ownership.”
Two wind projects do spin cash back to locals. The Batchewana First Nation, an Ojibway tribe, is a 50-per-cent partner with BluEarth Renewables Inc. of Calgary in the Bow Lake Wind Project, a 36-turbine, $240-million wind farm that went online last fall. Batchewana also co-owns 11 wind turbines beside the Prince wind farm. Chief Dean Sayers, a father of six, calls this a windfall.
“The spirits sent us a message at that time that we should be encouraging and endorsing alternatives and wind,” Sayers said. “Over 20 years, we expect $60 to $80 million from those projects, which is incredible for us, for the furthering of our peoples’ needs.”
But Sayers isn’t done just yet. “We are looking for other opportunities,” he adds. “We are open for business.”
There is one problem for Sayers and others plying the renewable energy trade in the Soo: the transmission lines sending power out are close to maxed out.
To help with this challenge, Convergent Energy and Power Inc. of New York is building a seven-megawatt lithium-ion battery project in Sault Ste. Marie, under a three year contract with Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator.
“In a lot of ways, the Soo is a little lab for the grid of the future,” said Johannes Ritter, chief executive of Convergent. “There are lots of renewables, transmission restraints, not a lot of fossil fuel power, and they are starting to pilot the batteries.”
Convergent is also teaming up with Sault College to help students develop expertise in clean tech.
O’Neill hopes renewable energy can create enough jobs to keep him in the Soo, whose other gifts include rivers teeming with salmon, whitefish, walleye and trout.
“I can be from my chair at work to my boat in under 10 minutes,” he said. “How many places in the world can you do that?”
Meanwhile at Heliene, workers crank out solar panels, night and day. “If you can’t sleep, come and see us,” its co-owner Pochtaruk said. “We’ll be here.”