Editor’s note: This commentary is by Darren Springer, the deputy commissioner of the Vermont Public Service Department. He previously was a senior policy adviser and chief counsel for Sen. Bernie Sanders. He lives in Burlington.
In Vermont this summer we had some good news regarding our efforts to spur renewable energy deployment, when Environment America ranked Vermont as ninth in the nation in per capita solar installations. This tracks with our data at the Public Service Department showing strong growth in solar energy and other technologies under the state net metering program. Net metering refers to a program that allows individual homes, businesses, farms and communities to install small-scale energy projects and utilize the power produced to offset their energy use and feed excess energy back to the grid.
With our state’s goal of getting to 90 percent renewable energy by 2050, solar energy is a critical part of our energy mix. We are on track to triple our net metered energy capacity in just the last two years. We have moved from less than 12 megawatts of net metered capacity at the start of 2011 to over 36 megawatts installed or pending today. Vermonters are seeing this growth in small-scale solar, with panels on roofs in our neighborhoods, trackers in farm fields, and solar arrays in our communities.
We know that when we see the sun shining on our solar panels we are producing clean and renewable energy for the grid that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. But it is also important to note that in addition to its environmental benefit, solar provides a valuable source of electricity. That is because solar energy output is highest during the sunny summer months when Vermont’s electricity load is at its peak.
By increasing our use of solar energy in Vermont, we can cut our reliance on those fossil peaking plants and save money. This is not theoretical; we are actually seeing the results of our increasing use of solar on the grid today.
On the hottest days of summer when air conditioners are running flat out, the New England region typically is operating inefficient fossil fuel plants that burn oil or gas to meet peak demand. These peaking plants are some of the costliest and most polluting resources on the grid. By increasing our use of solar energy in Vermont, we can cut our reliance on those fossil peaking plants and save money. This is not theoretical; we are actually seeing the results of our increasing use of solar on the grid today. According to VELCO, Vermont’s transmission company, our state has deferred hundreds of millions of dollars already in transmission projects that were previously thought to be “needed” to meet growing peak demand. When VELCO studied the investments in energy efficiency and solar our state has already made, they determined we actually did not “need” those investments because our peak load was coming down. The resulting savings benefit all Vermont electric ratepayers.
With state and regional transmission costs exerting upward pressure on electric rates, these transmission cost savings from solar represent a real value to all Vermont utility customers. Even individual utilities in Vermont whose load does not peak during the summertime benefit from the deferral of transmission projects, because all utilities in the state pay for their share of state and regional transmission projects.
Solar in Vermont not only saves us money, it also means that Vermont families and farms and businesses can invest in local energy and support local jobs. Our state is ranked number one by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for private sector green jobs per capita, and solar businesses are creating and supporting jobs in Vermont.
We know there are some folks who have raised questions about the costs and benefits of solar, and are opposed to continuing our net metering policies. In response to a legislative request, the Public Service Department examined these exact questions. In a report issued in January of this year, the department looked at costs and benefits of net metered solar projects. The report found when we account for the transmission savings and emissions reduction offered by solar, Vermonters see a net benefit from these solar projects.
With all of the economic and environmental benefits that solar can provide it is crucial that we continue the policies that have helped make Vermont a leader in solar energy. Our state’s net metering law is in need of an update during the next legislative session, because several of our utilities have hit a cap on program participation set in the law. Due to this cap on participation, there are Vermont homeowners and businesses and communities who want to participate in net metering and generate their own clean energy, but are being told “no.” That has to change.
That is why the Public Service Department has held intensive stakeholder sessions this summer to hear from utilities, solar developers, and environmental advocates about the net metering program and how to update it. The department is taking the best ideas from those sessions to produce a proposal for consideration during the next legislative session. The proposal will be based on the principles that all Vermonters who want to go solar should be able to do so, and that we ensure a fair program that takes into account all of the costs and the benefits of solar energy.
We should be encouraging solar energy, not prohibiting it. The Public Service Department will be working hard over the coming months with legislators to look at reforms that make net metering available to all Vermonters, and ensure that our state continues to be a leader on solar energy.