Ottawa's SunTech Greenhouse shuts off million-dollar lighting system this winter over hydro costs
An Ottawa greenhouse operation has hit a hydro snag in its attempt to mimic Mother Nature. SunTech Greenhouses in Manotick had installed a million dollar L-E-D lighting system to grow produce year round but after doing the math, the owner decided not to flip the switch.
Two years ago, SunTech installed row upon row of L-E-D lights in one and a half acres of its greenhouses. It was an expensive experiment trying to mimic Mother Nature. The problem is the sun is free; hydro not so much.
“Business dictates I cannot turn them on,” Bob Mitchell says, the owner, as he walks among thousands of tomato plants, the lighting system stretching among the plants.
“I did the math on it. I was going to be looking at in excess of a quarter of a million dollar hydro bill to do it.”
Mitchell says it’s been a triple whammy for him. The Trump administration’s tough talk on blocking imports from Mexico has led to a drop in the value of the peso, making imports from that country much cheaper on the shelves here. Then, January 1st, the Ontario government introduced its cap-and-trade system to fight climate change that Mtichell says added about $6,200 to his natural gas bill in 29 days, and, he says, it's pricing local greenhouse tomatoes out of the market.
“You can't add that to the wholesale price of the product and still end up on the grocery store shelf that you're not going to be laughed at,” he says.
Mitchell figures in the winter, it costs him, with the lights, about $1.15 to grow a tomato. That compares to about $0.38 for that Mexican tomato.
“I set my prices this year to break even,” he says, “not to make a profit but to break even which is stupid business wise and I’m getting resistance (from grocery stores) at those levels.”
What's happening here is happening to greenhouse growers throughout Ontario. Soaring power prices was one reason why NatureFresh Farms recently expanded into Ohio.
Peter Quiring is the CEO of NatureFresh Farms, “You know what's really crazy?” he says, “In Ohio, we're buying power for what Ontario is paying other jurisdictions to take that power. So instead of expanding here, we've expanded there using our power, so to speak.”
The Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers worries hydro prices will scare growers from investing in facilities with light and instead, look to the United States to make significant investments.
“Right now cucumbers are available all year (in Ontario),” says Justine Taylor, with the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, “but tomatoes and peppers, without light, need to take a break usually in January and February so the installation of lights would allow growers to produce 12 months a year.”
Unless Bob Mitchell can find a way to generate his OWN power -- for now Mother Nature is going to have to help him out.
“The equation is not real good.”
Mitchell did have to turn on his lights in January just to maintain the health of the plants, since January was particularly dark this year. He is still waiting for that bill but figures it will run him about $40,000.