Call it the thousand-points-of-light approach to solar development.
The pilot project announced by Green Mountain Power on Monday for community-based residential solar power has the potential for changing the face of power generation in America. And Vermont will be the laboratory where this innovative approach is developed.
GMP has brought in the national leader in solar power generation, NRG Energy, which is based in Princeton, N.J. NRG has developed large-scale solar installations in sun-drenched regions, such as the deserts of California and the plains of Texas. It also owns traditional generators that use coal, gas and nuclear power and is one of the largest power producers in the country.
Now NRG intends to think small. In Vermont it plans to sign up 50 Rutland residents to take electricity from a 150-kilowatt solar array it plans to build in the city. If that first project is successful, it will establish a second 150-kilowatt array for another 50 residents.
The Vermont pilot project is significant because it is an example of “distributed” power, which means power generated from sources that are widely distributed and close to consumers, as opposed to centralized in a power plant or hydro facility. Vermont has proven to be a good place to explore the possibility of community-based power generation because its regulations allow small-scale projects to pass through the approval process relatively quickly. Vermont also has experience in residential solar, due in large part to the “net metering” program, which began in 1999 and requires utilities to credit individual customers for excess power generation when their own solar panels generate more energy than their home can use.
The big problem with more widespread installation of residential solar, people have found, is that nearly 80 percent of existing homes aren’t suitable for home solar panels — the roof or home is too unstable, there are shade trees, or there’s no southern exposure.
This small pilot project gets around that problem by putting the solar panels in a central location — a vacant lot or undeveloped parcel, say — but keeping it small and local in scale.
If the Rutland project works, communities large and small could decide to create their own energy alternatives. Homeowners may not have a roof facing the right direction, or they may find solar collectors to be unsightly, but they like the idea of solar power. This new model would allow homeowners or businesses to sign up for power from an array set up by NRG or another solar developer in a kind of cooperative model. The expectation of NRG and GMP is that power costs to the customer will be lower with the added benefit that customers will be using a clean, climate-friendly source of power.
Customers would still be tied into the grid and would get power from the grid. They would still get bills from GMP, with a sum credited to their account from their portion of the solar power generated by NRG’s array. In Vermont solar power is especially valuable because it is most plentiful in the summer at the time of peak power demand, meaning solar power can be used to offset expensive peak power from fossil fuel sources.
NRG will be working out the details of its community-based power project — making lease arrangements with customers, determining costs and rates. If the project works as intended, there is no reason a town with room for a solar array could not work with a developer to establish its own project, enlisting residents and businesses, and not just in Vermont but throughout the country.
Solar is already profitable for NRG. By finding a way to develop numerous small projects, it is opening a new avenue for green energy, which becomes more crucial year by year as the effects of climate change become more pronounced. Halting the advance of climate change is a human imperative. Doing it by enlisting residents in community-based clean energy projects ought to be the wave of the future.
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