• Charged up over solar
    August 15,2013

    At the expense of sounding clichéd, I thought the future was bright. So bright, actually, that I invested in it.

    My home is atop a ridgeline, surrounded by open fields that I lease to a local organic farmer. I get a lot of sun, so I’d been thinking for some time that I wanted to go solar.

    Seven years ago, when I looked into solar systems, the cost was breathtaking, prohibitive. It made much better sense for me to button up and continue renovating my 1830s farmhouse. But every time I walked out onto my south-facing porch, I thought — in the warmth of even the coldest sunny day — that solar had a place on my land.

    This spring, a news release came across my desk from AllEarth Renewables. It was introducing solar net metering systems for residential properties. After an inquiry and a site evaluation, the Williston company affirmed what I already knew: I had the perfect spot for a solar array.

    Without going too deep into nerd-speak, here’s how it works: The AllSun Tracker — which is 16 feet by 20 feet and rotates with the movement of the sun — puts out about 4,600 DC watts, or 4.6 kilowatts. For now, my long-term lease allows me to produce electricity for my home and then for the grid — in other words: my neighbors. When the 20 solar panels make more electricity than I need, the excess is fed into the grid and my electric meter runs backward. Credit for excess generation is used to offset periods of time when I use more electricity than the tracker produces — or, as we know it in Vermont, winter.

    In effect, my little southwest corner of Plainfield has become a mini power generating station for Washington Electric Co-op, my family’s longtime, member-owned electric company. It was a proud day for me last month when the array finally went online, and I began tracking exactly how well my panels were producing renewable energy.

    Overnight, I felt I was doing my part; there was a whole new set of opportunities for me as a homeowner, and I had increased the value of my home.

    Solar was affordable. The incentives were nothing to frown at. And as my electric utility rate increases, my investment in solar energy becomes more valuable over time. Under a contractual agreement, the utility pays me to collect and convert sunlight.

    With the news this week that Washington Electric Co-op would limit future solar installations on its system, effectively shutting out customers who had hoped to generate excess power to sell to the utility, the future seemed less bright.

    I realized I got lucky, having my unit installed before the Oct. 1 deadline. But I was perplexed. Net metering is relatively new to Vermont, and its noncontroversial, rapid success has now been capped. Less than 1 percent of all of WEC’s power comes from solar, and yet the demand for solar around Vermont is unprecedented.

    The foreman on my installation was telling me there are more than 200 workers statewide laboring weeks behind schedule to complete all of the projects already on the plate. Each crew, five or six employees, works rain or shine, and an installation like mine takes a couple of days. That’s a lot of interest.

    Vermont prides itself on its hunger for renewables; it markets itself as a leader in renewables; it touts green jobs created by renewables; and it has provided incentives for Vermonters to take that lead for renewables.

    I understand why WEC, as well as other utilities around the state — including Hardwick Electric and Vermont Electric — want to throw the brakes on solar: the shifting of costs to customers who don’t produce power themselves. But essentially, these utilities have told solar-hungry Vermonters that “enough is enough” — only after our appetites were thoroughly whetted.

    The Legislature allows each Vermont utility to stop accepting additional net metering once customer-generated power capacity exceeds 4 percent of the utility’s peak power needs. WEC said it reached that cap with 635 kilowatts of installed renewable projects at the end of 2012 — most of them solar. WEC is putting a 5-kilowatt cap on “local” producers, because that is sufficient to serve most Vermont homes.

    This move erodes the principle behind enticing Vermonters to switch to clean energy. It is businesses (in WEC’s case member-owned) dictating that they know best, even though Vermonters are sending a very different message: We want net metering. WEC’s change in tone is a dark cloud on an otherwise sunny future for our state.

    Vermonters, like me, want local control, when producing our own energy. Capping success before it can truly take off is squandering potential.

    As Vermonter Paul Scheckel states in his new book, “The Homeowner’s Energy Handbook,” “making your own energy is, in every sense, empowering.”

    So to invoke another cliché, I hope this news does not suggest the sunset years for solar and other renewables in Vermont. That would not be bright.

    Steven Pappas is editor of The Times Argus.

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