Vermont Solar Sector Drops Off

Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, February 05, 2018

Hartford — Vermont’s solar economy suffered a serious blow in 2017, and environmental advocates are blaming a change early last year in net-metering laws that now cap the size of solar projects that larger solar customers — like the Town of Hartford — can install if they want to tap into so-called net-metering subsidies.

Only half as much capacity from local net-metered solar projects was installed in 2017 as was installed in 2016, according to data released by the Montpelier-based environmental group Renewable Energy Vermont.

“Derailing local solar that enables Vermonters to save on their bills, combat climate change, and create well-paying trade jobs, is the wrong direction for our state,” said Olivia Campbell Andersen, executive director of the group.

Under net metering programs, a customer — including large businesses, school districts, or individual homeowners — with a solar array can send excess electricity back to the grid in exchange for a credit toward the customer’s next bill.

Under the rule change, customers are limited to a maximum of 500 kilowatt hours worth of net-metered solar arrays, enough to power about 84 homes.

“If you’re a big municipal entity or business that uses lots and lots of power, they’re basically saying you can have 500kw in net metering and that’s it,” said Kevin McCollister, founder of Randolph-based solar installation company Catamount, which has 20 employees. “Why should we artificially impose limits like that? It seems like the policies are working counter to each other.”

That issue was addressed in a January 2017 report to the Vermont Legislature from the Vermont Public Service Board, around the same time the Vermont Public Utility Commission implemented the new rules.

“Renewable energy acquired through the net-metering program costs more than alternative sources of renewable energy. Therefore, the net-metering program has an important, but limited, role to play in realizing the state’s renewable energy goals,” according to the report. “Large customers should not be permitted to leverage the incentives offered by the net-metering program to deploy fleets of net-metering systems to offset their own significant power costs at the expense of other ratepayers.”

Hartford had a slate of three solar installations that had received permits from the PUC in advance of the 2017 rules, said Town Manager Leo Pullar.

“Those rule changes are what drove us to push to get our projects awarded in 2016 versus waiting until after those changes took place,” Pullar said Friday.

Hartford’s Energy Coordinator, Geoff Martin, said an array on the White River Junction wastewater facility went live about a month ago, while one on the Public Works building is nearing completion.

He’s looking forward to the next billing cycle.

“The great thing about net metering agreements is that the town doesn’t have to put in any money up front,” Martin said. “The developers are absorbing those costs. So it’s an immediate savings for the town’s electricity bills.”

But Hartford’s third planned solar array was delayed when engineers determined that the roof of the Wendell A. Barwood Arena wasn’t able to legally support the weight of the proposed solar array.

The delay created by the need to shore up the roof meant the project couldn’t be completed by the expiration date of the PUC certificate of public good, and so the installation company, Norwich Solar Technologies, filed an extension request.

The request was denied, and there is an appeal pending.

“If the WABA appeal does not receive a favorable ruling and we would have to construct under the new rules, it would cause us to seriously rethink that project,” Pullar said.

And that’s not the only project on hold for the town of Hartford, said Martin.

“I can’t really pursue any new solar installations for now,” he said. “We’ve maxed out that cap. Even if we were interested in doing some sort of mini-hydro projects, under the current rules we can’t pursue anything.”

That’s the kind of chilling effect that McCollister is seeing throughout his potential customer base at Catamount, which does both commercial and residential installations.

“Those things have made it hard,” McCollister said. “We definitely had a slower year last year than we did in 2016. For us, a good part of our revenue is down about 20 percent from year to year.”

However, he acknowledged that some of the dropoff was due to the regulations, which had people rushing to get their projects approved in 2016. When 2017 began, he said, there were virtually no projects in the pipeline.

McCollister said business was also slowed by another net-metering rule change that holds ground arrays of between 50 and 150kw to the same permitting requirements that, in 2016, were in place for arrays of between 150 and 500kw, the maximum size allowed.

“It’s just a much larger burden,” for mid-size installations that don’t get the same economy of scale as the larger installations, he said. “It takes longer. It’s considerably more expensive. It’s basically taken that segment of the market out of play because you can’t spend an additional $30,000 to $40,000 in additional permitting costs.”

For the years leading into 2017, the total amount of net-metered solar installed in Vermont increased annually, from about 10 megawatts in 2013, to more than 60 in 2016. The 2017 figures show that fell off to about 30 megawatts.

The Vermont Public Interest Research Group offered qualified support of the rules when they were first proposed. They were part of a suite of changes that also slightly reduced the rate paid to solar-equipped customers for their excess electricity, and removed a cap on the total amount of net metering allowed in the state.

“VPIRG believes these changes will help encourage long-term sustainable solar growth,” the group wrote at the time. “We are concerned, however, that the rule will make it more difficult for Vermonters who cannot get solar on their own roof to go renewable, and that larger utility customers — in particular public entities like municipalities and schools — won’t be able to get enough solar to meet their needs under these new rules.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.