Applications for residential solar installations are expected to climb following changes to Vermont’s net metering policy. The changes, which went into effect in January, create new incentives for small-scale solar power and have prompted more than 800 applications for construction in the first 20 weeks of 2017, putting the state on pace to double solar generation permits over the last three to five years, according data provided by the Public Service Board (PSB). Currently ranked eighth in the nation for solar capacity per capita, Vermont’s net metering policy allows utility ratepayers to offset their energy bills by feeding excess solar power back into the electrical grid.
That technical innovation is often celebrated by watching electrical meters run backwards when a solar equipped home generates more energy than it uses.
Formulated by the PSB when Act 99 was passed by the legislature and signed into the law in 2014, the new rules encourage Vermont landowners to install solar panels in nonagricultural “preferred locations,” such as over parking lots, gravel pits, and landfills. Additionally, the 2017 rules also remove previous limits on the amount of solar-generated power that can be fed back into the electrical grid for credits on customers’ utility bill.
“Folks go solar, folks invest in renewables because it’s cost effective, because it makes economic sense,” said Sarah Wolfe, who serves as clean energy advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG). “If the economics change … that investment will change too. Vermonters care about the environment—they care about their pocketbooks as well,” she said.
Locally, an additional increase in applications may be driven by the nixing of a monthly “grid service fee” by Washington Electric Co-op (WEC), prompting customers in Orange and Washington counties to join other Vermont ratepayers on the net metering bandwagon.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase from WEC customers for sure,” said Catamount Solar cofounder and managing partner Kevin McCollister on Tuesday.
“From 2004 to 2016, they had their own unique program that was a significantly worse deal for the customers. Now it’s basically the same [statewide], which is great. It’s easier. It’s more fair for the people. Now, across the state, everybody gets basically the same deal,” he said.
Favoring the construction of small-scale installations of roughly 15 kilowatt hours (kWh) or less, the new net metering rules have drawn some criticism from VPIRG and other community solar advocates who claim the rules cast a shadow over options for community and institution-sized projects that could serve colleges, municipalities, and school districts.
These larger projects operate by leasing a specific share of the system to individual community members and will now be limited to generating no more than 500kWh per institution in order to discourage the expensive practice of transmitting large amounts of electricity over long distances.
“We do have a concern that there really is no option for Vermonters who can’t put solar on their own property,” said Wolfe, noting that Vermont renters and landowners without solar-suitable properties would be left out of an affordable transition to clean energy.
“In order for clean options to be available to all Vermonters; it feels like there’s still a critical chunk missing. In particular, [for] renters,” she said.
The Energy Economy
Passing a set of policies called the Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) in 2015, Vermont lawmakers established a timeline requiring the inclusion of renewable energy sales by utility companies to ratepayers. Known as Act 56, the RPS requires 55% of an electricity provider’s sales be from renewable energy. That minimum threshold rises to 75% in 2032, helping the state keep to a trajectory of generating 90% of its energy needs through renewable sources by 2050, according to VPIRG.
These renewable energy goals represent a boon to Vermont’s expanding clean energy sector. According to the Solar Energies Industry Association and the Vermont Clean Energy 2016 Industry Report, more than 75 solar companies are operating in Vermont, employing some 17,700 and representing roughly 6% of the workforce.
“We’re definitely seeing more interest from…small business people,” said McCollister, who predicts that increased demand and falling installation prices will fuel further growth.
“The cost of the [solar] modules has dropped again [this year] by another 15 to 20 percent. That being the largest component of a system, makes a big difference,” he said.