An effort by Vermont’s largest electric utility to make it easier for business customers to green up their power supply is meeting resistance from renewable energy proponents.
Some in the renewable energy sector are concerned that Green Mountain Power’s new app, which allows businesses to use credits from older solar projects, could lessen the need to build new installations.
Josh Castonguay, GMP’s chief innovation executive, said the utility came up with the idea for the pilot project after hearing from businesses interested in getting more of their electricity from local renewable sources.
While GMP has vowed to go 100% renewable by 2030, the utility hopes the new “peer to peer” energy credit trading platform will allow customers to switch to greener power sources sooner. The app, which will only be available to some businesses at first, is designed to let customers buy credits directly from local power producers.
GMP has had previous programs for customers interested in paying a bit more to buy more renewable power, such as Cow Power, that were starting to feel a bit outdated, Castonguay said.
“There was basically a thought of, hey, let’s try a new platform that’s kind of simple that puts this flexibility in the customers’ hands to decide how much do I want, how long do I want it for,” said Castonguay. “And that way they’re not having to commit to some multi-year thing.”
Because there’s no way to track “green” electrons once they go onto the grid, regulators came up with renewable energy credits, or RECs, to certify clean generation. Castonguay stressed that customers would not be buying and selling RECs but rather a new credit the utility is calling a “Vermont green attribute.”
GMP selected LO3 Energy, a Brooklyn-based software company, to design an app that will track energy credit sales.
The pilot would be open to 50 businesses in GMP’s service area.
Initially, only GMP customers with so-called “first generation” or pre-2017 net metered solar panels could sell their credits through the app. The 2017 net metering rule change penalizes customers who don’t provide the renewable energy credits to their utility.
Sellers would also have to verify that they have not previously sold their renewable energy credits and allow the utility to contact their solar installer to verify RECs were not previously sold without their knowledge, according to a filing the utility made with the state Public Utility Commission.
With the utility’s power supply currently 60% renewable, GMP sees this as a bridge for businesses interested in having a greater portion of their power come from renewable sources before 2030, said Castonguay.
Depending on the success of the pilot, the utility hopes to expand the app to allow sales from new renewable projects.
“The whole point of this is it’s another platform … to connect directly with customers who want to transition to renewable and do it in a way that’s cost-effective,” Castonguay said.
Samantha Sheehan, communications manager for Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, said that she could not yet specifically comment on behalf of members on the new app. She added that combating climate change is a top priority for VBSR members, many of whom have started taking actions like self-imposed carbon taxes and installing solar panels on their roofs.
But for smaller Vermont businesses that don’t have as much control over their supply chains or lease office space, taking those actions can be much more difficult, said Sheehan.
“That’s why we need renewable investment on a statewide scale because even though the work that our business community is doing is innovative and inspiring … they can only do so much,” she said.
Vermont utilities have faced some pushback for touting in-state energy generation projects like wind and solar, selling the renewable “credits” to other states, then purchasing cheaper credits from out-of-state projects like hydropower to count toward the state’s renewable requirements.
Eric Phaneuf, director of business development for Waitsfield-based Aegis Renewable Energy, said that he sees an opportunity for people looking to make more money from their older solar array. But he expressed concerns that the app would encourage Vermont businesses to purchase credits from existing projects instead of investing in new, in-state renewable power generation.
“Unless we get new clean energy projects, we don’t clean up the profile of our current energy mix,” said Phaneuf.
Longtime renewable energy developer David Blittersdorf said he has broader concerns with separating out the “renewable” from power production, as is done in REC sales and with this app.
“I firmly believe that when you have solar and you tell your customers they have solar, you can’t sell it,” he said. “This doesn’t move the needle at all, it’s just another way of saying, ‘I can do a little bit of greenwashing if I do this.’”
Blittersdorf added that changes to the net metering program, like capping the amount of solar a business can purchase at 500 kW, have negatively impacted businesses’ ability to directly invest in renewable energy projects themselves.
Olivia Campbell Andersen, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, said that the trade group feels Vermonters do need to have an array of options to “access more local renewable electricity” to address climate change.
“It’s important, though, that state policy and new utility initiative frameworks help grow additional renewable energy deployment,” she added.
The utility hopes to launch the pilot in the next few weeks, pending Public Utility Commission approval.