Renewable enthusiasm Vermont's green energy law draws interest
MONTPELIER – If you help them build it, they will come.
Dozens of environmental and renewable energy contractors flocked to a day-long session at the Statehouse Friday with the Vermont Public Service Board to hear about a new state law aimed at stimulating the development of green energy.
The renewable program, which became law without Gov. James Douglas' signature, clears away some regulatory hurdles for the creation of small hydro, wind, solar and other green energy-generating sources in Vermont.
The Public Service Board, the quasi-judicial three-member panel that decides electrical regulatory issues, held the session, the second in less than a month, as it begins the hard work of writing the rules for the new law, including what the fixed contract rate for this green energy will be.
Many of the companies who attended Friday's session were enthusiastic about the opportunities with the program, which many say could be a much-needed jumpstart for the state's clean energy economy.
"With this program, we'll have for the first time a solid and stable marketplace for renewable energy development," explained Leigh Seddon, the vice president of engineering at Alteris Renewables, a solar panel-installation company from Montpelier.
Seddon, who founded Solar Works Inc. in 1980 (the company later merged with another one to form Alteris Renewables), said his business was booming in the late 1970s and early 1980s after then-President Jimmy Carter approved income tax credits for renewable energy.
That ended soon after Ronald Reagan became president, he said. Business dried up and Solar Works went from more than a dozen employees to just a handful in less than a year. Seddon said nine out of 10 solar companies went out of business during this period.
"Germany has had a similar program going for many years and they've become a world leader in renewable energy development," he said. "Vermont has an industry here already that is ready to go."
Another company interested in the program is Northern Power, a wind turbine company centered in Barre. One of the company's key products is what is known as Northwind 100 – a 100 kilowatt turbine designed for schools, businesses and municipalities.
Sales of that product in the last year are three times what they were for the previous seven years combined, the company said. Unfortunately, Northern Power has never sold one in Vermont.
That could change soon.
"Northern Power Systems is therefore a strong proponent of Act 45 and the standard offer contract as a mechanism to meet the demand for community scale wind in Vermont," said Jim Stover, the vice-president of product management for the company in an e-mail Friday afternoon. "Act 45 represents a tremendous opportunity to support a sustainable energy future for the state."
There could be one stumbling block in the new law: It has a total project cap of 50 megawatts of energy.
Karlynn Corey, an energy analyst for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, told the Public Service Board via telephone Friday that the programs that are successful typically don't have caps attached.
Her advice to state officials was to use caps sparingly.
"Germany really credits their success with having no caps," she said. "That makes it clear that the program truly is open to everyone so long as they can meet the provisions."
James Moore, the clean energy advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said he originally thought the state may not hit that program cap until three to five years from now. Based on the turnout at the two workshops so far, he's revised that estimate.
"We could be there in a year," Moore said. "The response has been tremendous."
Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, the chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, was one of the key lawmakers pushing the renewable energy bill in the Vermont Legislature this year.
He said Friday that lawmakers included the cap in response to concerns from some under the Golden Dome that the program would result in Vermonters paying rates for electricity much higher than the market rate.
"I don't think that will be true," Klein said. "But if we hit that cap in one year or two years, that's great. When we can show people that this is helping us and not hurting us, I think we can talk about lifting the cap."
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