Toronto Hydro urged to spark local solar panel industry

Most of the guys Chris Williams went to high school with in Scarborough have temporary or part-time jobs — if they are working at all.

But not Williams.

The 18-year-old earned a coveted spot in an Ontario Building Trades program for youth last December and is now training to become a licensed electrician. He is earning $12.73 an hour while he learns, plus benefits that include three weeks paid vacation, pension, medical and dental benefits — a package worth $23 an hour.

“What I have is a career,” said Williams, who is working on a energy retrofit at Princess Margaret Hospital. “I think other young people like me should get a chance to have careers too.”

With the Ontario Green Energy Act offering financial incentives for businesses to create green energy, a coalition of union, environmental and community groups says there is also an opportunity to create secure, well-paying jobs for disadvantaged groups such as youth, immigrants and people of colour.

And they want Toronto Hydro to take the lead by buying and installing hundreds of solar panels on the roofs of public buildings.

“Private businesses are already signing 20-year-leases with building owners to install solar panels to feed into the grid because they know there is money to be made,” said CUPE Local 1 President John Camilleri, who represents about 1,700 Toronto Hydro workers. “We think Toronto Hydro should get in on the action too.”

“As a school teacher, I see the value of being able to put people to work in good jobs so that parents can be home at night reading to their children,” said coalition member Nigel Barriffe, who grew up in Rexdale and teaches Grade 3 in the economically disadvantaged community.

Toronto Hydro spokesperson Blair Peberdy said the public utility believes this could help it meet its commitment to reduce the city’s electricity use by 500 megawatts and create 500 megawatts of green power per year by 2020.

However, the only way Hydro could get funds for such a massive project would be through electricity rate increases. That would require provincial approval. And it might not be popular with the public, especially when rates are already on the rise.

City Councillor Gord Perks, a member of the Toronto Hydro board, said the utility should partner with non-profit groups to raise the money.