Washington Electric Cooperative is the only utility in Vermont that has continued to accept applications to its net-metering, renewable-energy program, even after surpassing a legal marker that no longer compels it to do so.
But as of Oct. 1, the utility will accept only solar installations with a capacity of 5 kilowatts (kW) or less.
Vermont’s net metering law requires utilities to credit renewable energy projects that generate less than 500 kW for every kilowatt-hour (kWh) they produce. A utility, however, no longer has to accept applications for net-metering systems when the capacity of a utility’s total net metering surpasses 4 percent of its peak demand from the previous year or from 1996, whichever is greater.
When the Hardwick Electric Department and Vermont Electric Cooperative — the state’s second largest utility — hit the 4 percent mark, both utilities stopped accepting net-metering applications. The Morrisville Electric Department recently hit the cap, and they, too, are no longer accepting applications.
Leadership at Hardwick Electric and Vermont Electric say other customers are footing the bill for net-metering customers because net-metering customers don’t pay their fair share of the grid’s fixed costs. A new law passed in 2011, allows net-metering customers to apply the credits from the energy they produce to all charges, not just to kWh power charges.
This means that even though net-metering customers are using the power grid, they oftentimes aren’t paying for its maintenance. This financial situation is the major impetus behind Washington Electric’s decision to scale back the size of net-metering applications.
“We embraced net metering from the outset and have worked diligently to support WEC members who were interested in pursuing it,” Barry Bernstein, Washington Electric’s board president said in a statement. “However, as more and more members have signed up over the 4 percent threshold, we are growing concerned of the cost impact on other members.”
Even though Washington Electric was the first utility to hit the 4 percent marker, the utility has continued to accept applications. The news that the utility was scaling back its program catalyzed an avalanche of outcry from renewable energy advocates.
Gabrielle Stebbins of the trade organization Renewable Energy Vermont said she was disappointed by Washington Electric’s decision.
“Our net metering program has been our state’s primary successful renewables initiative, fostering clean energy, lowering peak costs on summer days for all customers, and creating local jobs,” she said in a statement. “As a result, Vermont has become 11th in the country for solar jobs. Unraveling a customer’s right to net meter would take us squarely backwards from our state’s adopted renewable energy goal of 90 percent by 2050.”
Johanna Miller, energy director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, echoed a similar sentiment.
“The precarious fate of net metering in Vermont is deeply troubling, considering the program is one of Vermont’s most successful renewable energy deployment tools, making it possible for Vermonters of all incomes to generate their own clean, renewable, distributed power,” she said.
Ben Walsh of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group panned the move.
“Net metering is working exactly as intended and solar energy has begun to take off as a result. The last thing we should be doing is slowing down,” he said in a statement. “VPIRG recognizes that WEC’s decision to limit its customers’ development of renewable power is not as environmentally regressive as Vermont Electric Co-op’s recent decision to flat out stop any more of its members from going renewable, but it is still going to put the brakes on solar power.”
But Washington Electric has been one of the leading proponents of renewable energy generation in Vermont. So, why did the advocates go after the rural utility?
For starters, a battle is brewing between renewable energy developers and many of the state’s rural utilities over the future of net metering in Vermont. Washington Electric was just the first utility to send out a statewide news release on the issue.
As Stebbins put it, “WEC was the first one to step out there … VEC hasn’t really rolled out what they’re planning on doing yet. It’s hard to respond to something that’s temporary.”
Miller said the fact that Washington Electric has been such a proponent of renewable proliferation is what makes this decision so upsetting to her.
“You have our leading utilities that understand the need and benefit of renewable energy to the grid, and if they’re putting the brakes on it’s troubling,” she said.