Commentary

Jock Gill: It is time for Vermont to become a leader in community solar

This commentary is by Jock Gill of Peacham, an internet communications consultant who served in President Bill Clinton’s Office of Media Affairs. He is town energy coordinator in Peacham.

In Peacham, the energy committee is pushing for a first 150 kW community solar project. The electricity produced will help reduce the energy burden on the Peacham Town Office building, fire department, and town garage.

This will benefit all Peacham residents, regardless of their electricity provider (Washington Electric Cooperative at 62% and Green Mountain Power at 38%). We hope to also be able to provide power to the essential nonprofits in town, as well as to residents who are energy-burdened. Equity is a fundamental issue for us.

We have a great site offered to the project by a family with deep roots in Peacham. It is not in anyone’s viewshed, not a deershed or a wetland, and is convenient to Green Mountain Power lines. Recently, we were able to present the site and our story in person to Lt. Gov. Molly Gray when she was in Peacham.

One problem is that the state does not have an office that sends supporting staff to local communities to help them achieve community solar in the best way possible. Quite the contrary. 

The Public Utility Commission and the Agency of Natural Resources seem hostile to community solar. They throw up objections and obstructions. So much so, they have driven almost all community solar business opportunities out of Vermont. 

We need to change this. It is time to greatly accelerate the installation of distributed renewable energy and storage systems of all types. All communities in Vermont would benefit. 

At one time, Vermont was listed as a state that had passed legislation that supported community solar. Recent changes in the regulatory environment appear to have now made Vermont much less supportive of community solar. Vermont should be a leader, not a laggard. Does Vermont really want to, as it is currently doing, leave 70% of its residents unable to benefit from clean, lower-cost solar energy? This is hardly the way to reach the state’s ambitious climate action goals.

To actively develop community solar in Vermont, can Vermont’s 120-plus energy committees be energized to demand equitable access to solar power and the all-electric future for all Vermonters? This, given recent climate news, is perhaps even more critical than creating access to broadband. 

We must allow communities to develop resilient energy security infrastructure, create good-paying jobs, and have some power and control over their local energy arrangements. To this end, we also need to embrace Pay As You Save programs statewide. 

I hope you will support this effort to bring this essential effort to the attention of all of the 120-plus energy committees in Vermont. Getting community solar benefits for all will take concerted people power. Energy committees are the natural focal points for this essential people-powered effort.

About the status of community solar:

Market status

As of December 2020:

  • Community solar projects are located in 39 states, plus Washington, D.C.
  • 22 states, plus Washington, D.C., have policies that support community solar.
  • Community solar projects represent 3,005 megawatts alternating-current (MW-AC) of total installed capacity.
  • About 74% of the total market is concentrated in the top four states: Minnesota (663 MW-AC), Florida (593 MW-AC), Massachusetts (555 MW-AC), and New York (410 MW-AC).

NREL’s Sharing the Sun: Understanding Community Solar Deployment and Subscriptions presents data and analysis from an initial round of data collection for a three-year project studying the U.S. community solar market.

Benefits

Based on design details, community solar projects can benefit customers, utilities and third-party entities by providing:

  • Greater electricity rate stability and potential bill savings for program participants.
  • Wider solar accessibility for different electricity customer classes, especially if portions of projects are set aside for low-income customers.
  • Grid benefits by siting projects in specific locations.
  • Renewable portfolio standard compliance through increased renewable energy generated from community solar projects (to do so, utilities must retain ownership of the renewable energy credits, which represent the environment components of this energy generation).
  • The possibility for utilities to recover a larger portion of program costs from participating customers rather than nonparticipating ratepayers, compared to other incentive programs. This recovery will depend on the pricing structure employed.

Commentary

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