Special Report: Tax breaks drive Vermont’s solar gold rush

by Erin Mansfield

August 31, 2015

Solar is the fastest-growing source of energy in the country, and Vermont’s solar industry is growing dramatically. The solar industry is booming nationwide because of multibillion-dollar federal tax breaks, and developers have their eyes on Vermont because of its additional cash incentives.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Read Part 2: Rural communities push back against solar.

In 2014, the state ranked at 22 out of 50 states for total solar capacity nationwide. Vermont’s industry employs about 1,500 people at 72 companies, and produces $76 million in output, making it the state with the most solar jobs per capita.

In just the past eight months, Vermont’s Public Service Board has approved 79 nonresidential solar projects across the state, including 11 commercial-scale installations. Last year, the board approved 138 nonresidential solar projects, including 23 commercial-scale installations.

Over the past 10 years, the total number of net-metered solar projects in Vermont has grown exponentially. The number and proposed size of commercial projects is also shooting up. The Public Service Department is now reacting to a handful of 20-megawatt commercial projects — which are 10 times larger than any of the existing projects in Vermont.

The growing size and amount of solar arrays is directly related to a 30 percent federal tax break for unlimited investments in solar projects. The tax breaks are designed to drive the nation away from fossil fuels, and supporters hope that solar energy use will help to combat climate change.

While state incentives pale in comparison, Vermont offers a tax structure that keeps solar developers rushing in, and a net-metering program that requires utilities to buy solar at a higher rate.

The federal government’s Business Investment Tax Credit, or ITC, which lets corporations write off 30 percent of construction costs, is set to drop to 10 percent at the end of 2016. That means if developers want to write off one-third of each solar project’s installation costs, they need to get their applications in as soon as possible and make sure their projects are built by Dec. 31, 2016.

The looming expiration date for the tax breaks has sparked a gold rush because developers know there is no guarantee that Congress will extend the federal Investment Tax Credit this year. U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., has signed on as a co-sponsor of a bill in the House that would extend the credit through 2022.

The plummeting cost of solar panels in the past decade is another contributing factor. The cheapest ones come from China, and while they’re slightly less efficient than the more expensive products from the U.S., Korea or Japan, developers can install inexpensive panels across a larger land area to produce the same amount of energy.

While solar arrays continue to sprout up across the Green Mountain State, the amount of energy from commercial and residential solar is rising, but in total remains only 2.3 percent of the energy portfolio of the state’s largest utility, Green Mountain Power. Canadian hydropower, in contrast, represents more than 40 percent.

Chris Recchia, commissioner of the Public Service Department, says that while the state offers incentives to solar developers, the Investment Tax Credit is the main driver of the nationwide solar boom.

“You’re going to see a lot of applications this year for construction next year because the thing has to be operational by Dec. 31 of next year to be eligible for tax credits,” Recchia says. “I think that’s probably the biggest interest in why we’re seeing those [solar projects] now.”

Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, said subsidies on solar should end now that the industry has proven it can make money. Solar should be treated like any other business, he said, and developers should get the same level of subsidies as his masonry company, which is zero.

“The people who are putting up the projects are millionaires or corporations held by very wealthy people, and the tax dollars are paid by all of us,” Rodgers said. “These solar deals seem to be very lucrative for them, and it’s on the backs of the taxpayer and the ratepayer.”

Doug Tolles, a New Haven Selectboard member, also says the industry is dominated by people who are in it to make money. He opposes solar energy altogether, and his town has been at the forefront in land use debates.

“This is corporate welfare is all it is,” Tolles said. “It drives me crazy. The Legislature has changed the rules so that the solar industrial generating plants get tax breaks, and the towns that host them get screwed.”

What’s so great about Vermont?

Developers look for flat land near three-phase power infrastructure that gets virtually no shade. That’s what makes the South and the Midwest popular regions to install solar systems.

When developers come to Vermont, they usually steer clear of roof-mounted arrays that require expensive racking systems. Putting arrays in fields is more attractive because installation is cheaper and construction takes six weeks to three months.

“The solar boom is not equal across the country,” says Andrew Perchlik of the Public Service Department. “It’s a combination of federal policies and state policies. There are some other states where you can’t do net metering, for example.”

Vermont’s net-metering law, which passed in the 1990s and was updated in 2014, allows residents to build as much solar as they need and essentially sell unused energy to their utility company at a higher rate than what they pay for the energy they use. In exchange, they receive credits to lower future energy bills. Developers can build large net-metered projects up to 500 kilowatts and enter into contracts with institutions, such as schools, towns or businesses, which essentially invest in the project.

From 2004 to 2014, the Public Service Department gave cash incentives to Vermonters who wanted to install net-metered solar projects on their property. The department offered $2,500 per kilowatt in 2004; the number gradually decreased before disappearing at the end of 2014.

Vermont continues to offer solar developers a 7.2 percent personal income tax credit for construction costs. Piggy-backed on the federal government’s tax credit, the state tax break means solar developers can subtract up to 37.2 percent of the price of installing solar farms directly from their taxable income.

Vermont law says utilities like Green Mountain Power must pay 19 cents per kilowatt hour for energy from net-metered solar projects. In real terms, credits on a 150-kilowatt net-metered project add up to about $35,000 in revenue per year. Revenue on a 500-kilowatt net-metered project would be about $117,000 per year.

For commercial scale projects, those larger than 500 kilowatts, developers only get 11 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s an incentive for developers to build either 500-kilowatt net-metered projects or multi-megawatt commercial projects. In contrast, utilities could pay between 4 cents and 8 cents per kilowatt hour for hydropower.

“The savings to (utilities) is worth that (few) cents per kilowatt hour for renewable energy generation,” Recchia says, adding that it saves Green Mountain Power from having to buy energy from the rest of the Northeast electric grid.

The state has also set a special formula for the assessed value of nonresidential solar arrays. Property owners pay $4 per kilowatt directly to the state’s tax department, which deposits the money into the Education Fund.

In real terms, developers pay $600 per year in property taxes on a 150-kilowatt community solar farm sitting on roughly an acre of land or $8,000 for a 2-megawatt farm sitting on about 15 acres of land.

SunCommon Expanding

Enter SunCommon, the company building a grassroots effort to have solar on every home and place 150-kilowatt community arrays throughout the state. The company launched its community solar program in fall 2014, right when Public Service Department grants were drying up.

James Moore, the co-president of SunCommon, says four people started the company in 2012 with the idea that everyone should have access to clean energy. SunCommon has grown each year since. The money households pay for community solar goes right to the cost of construction, and the profits have been invested in the company, Moore said.

“We’re definitely still in that startup phase, but we effectively launched a new business by launching our community solar program,” he said. “I don’t know when we’re going to be out of startup mode.”

Emily McManamy, a spokesperson for SunCommon, said Vermonters rushed to buy solar through SunCommon when word got out that the Public Service Department grants were drying up at the end of 2014 and that the Investment Tax Credit could be gone by the end of 2016. More Vermonters than ever are signing up for SunCommon solar services, the company says.

“We welcome that federal money flowing into Vermont,” McManamy said of the federal tax breaks. “A big message to people now is there literally has never been a better time to get in on solar.”

SunCommon is expanding in Vermont because of its grassroots marketing approach. The company installed residential solar on 250 homes in 2012; on 450 homes in 2013; and 890 homes in 2014. The company expects to install solar on 1,100 homes in 2015.

SunCommon has 69 limited liability companies registered with the state under “Sun CSA” for 150-kilowatt community solar arrays. Ten have been connected to Vermont’s power grid. Each community project is designed to provide power for 30 households. SunCommon takes the federal tax credit for itself and gives Vermonters who buy shares in the solar farm a 7 percent discount on their electricity bills.

“Many Vermonters on fixed incomes, disability and Social Security are not able to benefit from federal tax incentives,” McManamy says, “so we set up the ownership structure for the arrays in a way that maximizes the ITC and other federal incentive programs.”

How efficient is solar energy?

The efficiency of any type of energy is measured by a physics term called the “capacity factor,” which is usually about 14 percent for solar in Vermont.

Only a small percentage of the sun that shines on solar arrays gets turned into energy, especially in a place like Vermont, which has long winters and frequent rainfall in the summer months.

To know how much energy a project produces in a year, physicists multiply the theoretical capacity of a project by the number of hours in a year (8,760) by the “capacity factor,” which measures the efficiency of the technology.

While the capacity factor for solar is 14 percent in Vermont, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, wind by comparison is 33 percent efficient, hydropower is 38 percent, geothermal is 70 percent, and nuclear energy is 90 percent.

Low cost, high demand

Andrew Savage is the chief strategy officer for AllEarth Renewables, owned by renewable energy magnate David Blittersdorf. The company has built 12 megawatts worth of solar farms across the state. Another part of the company sells pole-mounting systems to other developers.

Savage, who is also on the board for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said his company builds solar projects under separate limited liability companies with “AllSun Solar” in the name. Once the projects are built, they seek an investor who will buy the project from them, take the 30 percent tax credit for themselves and manage the project in the long-term.

“They can own it for five years and sell it to someone else, or they can own it for 25 years and have it be a long-term annuity,” Savage said. “The payback period can be anywhere from 5 to 8 years. The investor is going to want to make somewhere between an 8 to a 12 percent return. If it’s lower, they might as well just put money in the stock market.”

Savage said the industry is benefiting from low interest lending rates, the declining price of solar panels and a growing consumer demand for solar.

“[Panels] sort of steadied out around 70 cents per watt, but they came down from about $4 per watt,” he said. “Solar is a pretty stable investment. The economics really are there.”

Savage said the expiration of the Investment Tax Credit would slow growth in the solar industry, but demand will remain because companies “can go to a customer and offer significant energy bill savings.”

“It is definitely going to cause some contraction,” he said. “It’s definitely going to cause a change in the business model, but it’s clear that the technology is sound, and the demand for solar is increasing.”

Gary Skulnik, director of marketing for groSolar, sees things differently. The 15-year-old company is based in White River Junction and has an office in Maryland.

In 2015, groSolar had two commercial projects in Rutland Town and Hartland approved by the Public Service Board. Rutland Town is now challenging the board’s decision to approve the 2,300-kilowatt array.

Skulnik says the federal tax breaks may make building solar worthwhile, but the array of cash incentives that Vermont offers, and a political environment that has made it possible to develop solar virtually anywhere in the state, makes Vermont a great place to be a solar developer.

“Vermont has some good land, some good sites, and it’s got a citizenry that for the most part is very supportive of switching to clean energy for a clean environment and to fight climate change,” Skulnik said. “It all helps, and it’s part of what makes Vermont attractive.”

“Of course it doesn’t have the solar coverage of Texas or Oklahoma, but it’s got enough [incentives] to make these profits worthwhile,” Skulnik said. “If [Texas and Oklahoma] had the incentives that Vermont had, people would be building like crazy there.”

Skulnik says his large-scale projects take his company about three months to build. He said if developers don’t start construction on new projects by Dec. 1, 2016, “you’re probably not going to make it in time” for federal tax breaks.

“It’s not going to be the end of the solar industry,” he said. “However, we do want an extension.”

How much money can developers make on commercial solar?

Company A builds a 2,200-kilowatt (2.2 megawatt) commercial solar project and sells the energy to a local utility through the grid. Company A’s project costs $6 million, and the energy sells for between 10 cents and 11 cents per kilowatt hour.

The revenue from the energy, assuming the panels are 14 percent efficient, is between $270,000 and $297,000 a year for 20 years. The education property taxes for the structure, in addition to the 15 acres of land underneath, would be $8,800. The company could take a $2 million federal tax break or sell the project to an investor who wants to add clean energy to its asset portfolio.

How do community solar projects work?

Company B builds a 150-kilowatt community solar array in 2014. The array costs $600,000. The state gives Company B a $37,500 net-metering grant, and the company gets a $180,000 federal tax break on those panels. Company B attracts 30 homeowners who are interested in investing in the project. Nineteen of those households have roofs that can’t structurally support solar racking systems, and 11 that can’t afford up-front costs for solar. All of the households get a 7 percent discount on electricity bills. The education property taxes on the structure, which sits on an acre of land, are $600, paid directly to the state.

How much money can a homeowner save on electricity?

Homeowner C made $80,000 in personal income in 2011 and decided to install 6 kilowatts of solar on the home she built in 2009. She paid $27,000 up front for panels and used a $4,500 state net metering grant to offset the cost. On her federal tax return, she deducted $8,100. She now produces more energy on her home during the summer than she can use, and pays $0 for electricity for that period. Green Mountain Power gives her credits for the extra energy because of Vermont’s net-metering law, so she pays very small electricity bills during the winter. There is no property tax on the panels because the installation is under 15 kilowatts.

Hydro trumps solar as share of Vermont’s energy

The state aspires to get 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050. Most of the renewable energy Vermont uses now comes from hydropower because solar panels are comparatively less efficient and the energy is more expensive.

The Ethan Allen Institute, a conservative think tank, estimates that Vermont would need to install panels on 100,000 acres of land to meet 90 percent of its electric energy needs through solar.

At Green Mountain Power, which serves about three-quarters of Vermont households, 42 percent of the company’s energy portfolio comes from hydropower from Canada.

According to Kristin Carlson, spokesperson for Green Mountain Power, solar is currently 2.3 percent of Green Mountain Power’s energy portfolio, and about half of that number comes from commercial solar projects of 500 kilowatts or more. Green Mountain Power’s percentage of solar power the utility uses has increased from 0.5 percent in 2012, 0.8 percent in 2013 and 1.6 percent in 2014.

Forty-four percent of Green Mountain Power’s electricity is miscellaneous power from the New England grid. The company values solar because it produces the most electricity during summer days, lining up conveniently with when Vermonters are using air conditioners.

Residential solar, according to Carlson, reduces what the utility needs to buy from energy wholesalers. Green Mountain Power is now developing a mapping tool that would help the utility figure out which areas of Vermont need energy.

Green Mountain Power wants to develop a strategy for purchasing solar power. The utility has not yet had to reject energy from a solar developer.

Supporting Data

  • Bruce S. Post

    From the book “Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”:

    N’en déplaise à ces fous nommés sages de Grèce,
    En ce monde il n’est point de parfaite sagesse;
    Tous les hommes sont fous, et malgré tous leurs soîns
    Ne diffèrent entre eux que du plus ou du moins.

    In spite of every sage whom Greece can show,
    Unerring wisdom never dwelt below;
    Folly in all of every age we see,
    The only difference lies in the degree.

    — Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux

  • roger tubby

    This may be a great article but I got distracted by the floating layout.

    • Willem Post


      I agree, the article needs to be reformatted.

      Also historic data regarding annual and cumulative capacity, MW, and production, MWh, for each of the past 10 years would be useful, and future year by year projections to 2050, based on the 90% plan.

      DPS likely has these data in its files, if not it should have.

      The data should be on the DPS website to inform the public of what is coming.

    • Ryan Garvey

      I was distracted by the “e”s

    • Kathy Nelson

      Agreed, Roger, the format was awkward and distracting.

      The Bangor Daily News is running an article today that you should all look at. I watched this ISO alert happen the other day and it was appalling:


      The hawking of jobs for renewables is misleading. A few jobs created by junk renewables means hundreds of jobs and incomes lost to the very durable tourism industry. People don’t come here to look at industrial junk yards. In a few years these industrial wastelands will be abandoned by the profiteers who built them and guess who will be left cleaning up the mess? Of course, most of the junk can’t even be recycled. How’s that for “looking to the future” and “saving the planet”?

      • Willem post


        Thank you for the USL. A great story, which has repeatedly happened in Germany as well. Both solar and wind being near zero, and demand near high.

        This is rampant stupidity coming out of Montpelier which arrogantly uses eminent domain to rob us blind/impose its will, with wind and solar schemes.

        What if we had 90% of ALL our energy from renewables? We would up s… creek big time.

        If that $4 billion had been invested in energy efficient buildings and cold weather heat pumps, EVERYONE would have SOOOOOO much better off.

        • John Baker

          There was so much misinformation in that Bangor Daily News piece I had to double check the author!

          – “Alert 2” is a made up term.
          – ISO entered procedure M/LCC-2 which is specifically NOT a request for conservation.
          – The embedded link where they say “This is when factories are asked by the grid to close up shop and send workers home.” has nothing to with grid conditions.
          – Much of the solar is behind the meter and will not show up on the ISO express web page.

          In summary, more intentional disinformation from the anti-wind brigade.

          • Glenn Thompson

            If you are going to state there is much misinformation in the Bangor Daily News piece, at least make an attempt to point out where your disagreements are, so the rest of us can research and decide for ourselves?

          • Willem Post


            About half of the solar is behind the meter, meaning it is not “seen” by ISO-NE, which sees only what is fed into the HIGH VOLTAGE grid.

            But half of nearly nothing (a few MW) on a high demand day (24,000+ MW) is, well, nearly nothing. It is like a drop of water on a hot plate.

            And wind was not helping out either. No surprise, as it is well known, on warm days in summer, there rarely is any wind.

            Germany experiences the same conditions, uses coal plants to make up the short falls. Its CO2 emissions have been flat or rising during the past 5 years, despite RE build outs.

          • Kathy Nelson

            Did you watch the grid as this was happening, John Baker. I did, briefly. I was shocked to see the coal generation go up and oil (back-up generators) hit over 10%. Solar was non-existent and it was the middle of a hot day (true, solar is the smallest and most expensive contributor to the grid). It was a bit scary to see the grid go into alert like that but we were lucky to have natural gas and nuclear to keep things running.

            We need more reliable baseload generation. Not junk “renewables”. Your panicked response to the Bangor article is very unconvincing.

  • Bill Sanders

    So, from this article, it appears most of the income enjoyed by the Biddlesdorf family and the sun common owners is derived from federal tax breaks. Perhaps we should impose a special additional tax to those families receiving more than $100k of their income in the from of tax breaks? – this is nuts! How the hell is this energy source possibly sustainable, when, as reported, in reality, it cost significantly more to create and install than it can return? What a joke. The article does imply the at hydro power and geo-thermal is viable in a free market.

    • Ryan Garvey

      “In 2013, the U.S. federal and state governments gave away $21.6 billion in subsidies for oil, gas, and coal exploration and production.”


      • Kathy Nelson

        Anyone who quotes the Huffington Post must be having a really bad day. The Huffpo can’t tell the difference between a subsidy and a tax break. It is doubtful the po’s could tell the difference between a subsidy and a bailout.

        Try this: http://www.eia.gov/analysis/requests/subsidy/

        Come on back when you figure out from the government charts who is getting the most in “subsidies”.

        • John Greenberg

          Kathy Nelson:

          “The Huffpo can’t tell the difference between a subsidy and a tax break.” First, the Huffpo article explicitly refers to a new report by Oil Change International, so it’s really to that report that you should be responding. If you turn to table 1 on page 9 of the pdf of that report, you’ll see the expenditures broken down (and sourced): http://priceofoil.org/content/uploads/2014/07/OCI_US_FF_Subsidies_Final_Screen.pdf

          More importantly, what IS the difference between the 2? You suggest that we “try” the EIA subsidy report. In this context, that’s pretty amusing, since large portions of the “subsidies” granted to renewable energy, according to EIA are, wait for it, tax breaks, or in the report’s phrasing “tax expenditures.”

      • Lance Hagen


        “U.S. federal and state governments gave away $21.6 billion in subsidies for oil, gas, and coal exploration and production”. That is pale in comparison to what was provided to solar.

        U.S. government (and this this doesn’t include the state government) gave away an average of $39 billion a year over the past 5 years on financing grants, subsidizing tax credits, guaranteeing loans, bailing out failed solar energy projects. So for 5 years, this is a total for solar subsidies, of $195 billion ($39×5) according to a report titled “Filling the Solar Sinkhole: Billions of Bucks Have Delivered Too Little Bang”.

        And what did we receive in return? According to EIA, solar generated 1.83xe10 kWh is 2014. Assuming numbers for this solar output, over the next 25 years, are the same as 2014 (this is not likely since solar arrays output decays). This means, that over this 25 year period, solar will have generated 4.58xe11 kWh of power (1.83e10 x 25).

        So the net result is, over the 25 year period, solar only generates 2.21 kWh/subsidy $ (4.58xe11/1.95xe11). Compare that to highly subsidize nuclear, who in the worst case, generates 96.4 kWh/subsidy $. This makes nuclear is 44x better than solar! Number for oil, gas, and coal are much better.

        • John Greenberg

          Lance Hagen and I have had this discussion many times now.

          1) In previous discussions, he has insisted that we should rely on the same EIA report on subsidies that Kathy Nelson cites above. The full version is at http://www.eia.gov/analysis/requests/subsidy/pdf/subsidy.pdf.

          But thanks to the EIA report’s many exclusions (which I have repeatedly noted and which Lance has repeatedly dismissed in previous comments) that report values cumulative subsidies for renewables at a much lower figure than he now wants to use (more below).

          Instead, he turns to a paper from the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a Koch brothers’ front (See http://www.energyandpolicy.org/taxpayer-protection-alliance), which uses two different figures to cumulate solar subsidies, but provides no documentation for either one.

          On page 2 of the paper he cites (which is here: http://protectingtaxpayers.org/assets/files/solar-report-february-12.pdf), one of the report’s “key findings” is “Over the past five years, the federal government spent an estimated $150 billion subsidizing solar power AND OTHER RENEWABLE ENERGY PROJECTS.” (emphasis added). But then, on page 8, we are suddenly informed that “…solar power continues to be a losing proposition. American taxpayers spent an average of $39 billion a year over the past 5 years financing grants, subsidizing tax credits, guaranteeing loans, bailing out failed solar energy boondoggles and otherwise underwriting every idea under the sun to make solar energy cheaper and more popular.” Those other renewable projects are nowhere to be seen.

          So what started as solar AND “other renewable energy projects” @ $150B has now morphed into $39 x 5 or $195B for solar ALONE with no explanation, no sources, and no documentation of any kind for either figure.

          By way of comparison to the $39 billion per year for “the past five years,” the EIA report shows total solar subsidies of $5.328B for 2013 and $1.134B for 2010. (See pp. 16 and 17 of pdf cited above. I don’t have the figures for the other years). Quite a substantial (and again, unexplained) difference, but given Lance’s determination to show the maximum possible figures for renewable subsidies, hardly surprising.

          So let’s sum up. Within Lance’s cited report, we have an unexplained discrepancy of well over $45 billion, since the lower figure ($150B) INCLUDES “other renewable energy projects” and the higher figure ($195B) is for solar only. And the higher figure shows discrepancies, again unexplained, of more than $33 B and $37 billion PER YEAR for 2 of the years covered in the EIA report, but these too are unexplained. (Presumably, other years are similar).

          Six months ago, Lance criticized me for using “unquantified numbers and verbiage that only distorts the entire power generation and subsidy picture,” and demanded that I “come(s) up with ACTUAL and BELIEVABLE figures of his [my] own to demonstrate his [my] position.” http://vtdigger.wpengine.com/2015/03/13/suzanna-jones-the-business-of-climate-change/#comment-220336 Maybe now’s the time for you to take a dose of your own medicine, Lance.

          2) Next, Lance brings out the latest version of his bogus arithmetic to calculate KWh per subsidy dollar. An extended and detailed discussion of why his earlier math is wrong can be found here: http://vtdigger.wpengine.com/2015/08/14/bennington-select-board-votes-to-oppose-two-solar-projects/#comment-243393 Here, he’s quietly dropped his attempt to compare one year’s subsidy for decades-long projects to the cumulative production of just one year from all projects whether they received subsidies in the given year or not. That’s a bit of progress, though per usual, he provides no explanation.

          In any case, the new math isn’t a whole lot better, since it continues to ignore the crucial point: the year in which a given subsidy is granted may or may not (depending on the nature of the subsidy) impact production in the year in which it is granted, or in one or more future years. For example, some subsidies (e.g. R&D) are largely intended to explore novel technologies and thus by design, do not show production results at all (or, at least, not directly and not immediately). Yet no attempt is made to separate these from subsidies like the Production Tax Credit which ARE intended to foster greater production.

          In the case of nuclear subsidies, for example, which Lance cites as his comparison case, the subsidies granted in 2013 bear almost no relationship to the production figures for that year. For details, see my comments to Willem Post here: http://vtdigger.wpengine.com/2015/09/04/wind-developer-gets-extension-to-study-windham-county-site/#comment-245488

          But that does NOT mean that nuclear production in 2013 wasn’t subsidized. It was: back in the 1970s when the industry received substantial subsidies to build the US nuclear fleet. Now since the 1970s were more than 25 years ago, those subsides wouldn’t show up AT ALL in Lances’ precise-seeming, but totally misleading, calculations.

          Until you understand the nature of the problem you’re trying to quantify, the correct figures to use and the correct lifecycles that apply, the use of calculations like those presented here is not helpful. Instead, the results are totally meaningless and mask that fact in what only appear to be precise figures. What parades as precision is actually deceptive claptrap.

          3) Finally, Lance’s calculations – and I might add this article and many of the comments – entirely ignore a key point about subsidies: namely, that successfully implemented subsidies can create an industry which can later thrive on its own without government help.

          In this case, thanks to US tax credits – AND THOSE FROM OTHER COUNTRIES, e.g. Germany and Spain as well – the worldwide solar industry has seen massive growth in recent years (400+% from 2010-2014 http://cleantechnica.com/2014/04/24/us-solar-energy-capacity-grew-an-astounding-418-from-2010-2014/) , from virtually nothing to a thriving and growing economic sector.

          If federal solar tax credits are lowered or terminated at the end of next year, there will doubtless be a setback in this prodigious growth curve. But unlike previous setbacks, this one is likely to prove temporary. Solar prices have come down far enough that even without subsidies, they have reached “grid parity” in many places, and large investment firms like Deutsche Bank and Citicorp now predict that it’s only a matter of a few years before they do so pretty much everywhere.

          Should that occur, than the UNSUBSIDIZED projects going forward will be the indirect stepchildren of the subsides granted in the past few years, because the subsidies will have moved the price curve to a point where solar photovoltaic power can compete on its own merits. If that happens, (and for what it’s worth, I believe it will), then the indirect production resulting from the drop in solar prices due to the subsidies will vastly outweigh the direct production from today’s projects. That, after all, is the whole POINT of these subsidies.

          In addition, as neither this article nor most of the comments note, ALL energy sources have been subsidized in the US: not just in recent years, but for centuries. Cf. http://www.dblinvestors.com/documents/What-Would-Jefferson-Do-Final-Version.pdf for fascinating examples going back to the 18th century. That means that those complaining about today’s renewable subsidies are asking that the renewable industry compete with heavily subsidized generation from other sources. That’s hardly a level playing field or a reasonable demand.

          The real question we should be asking is not why the US and other governments opted to create the solar industry, just as, in the past, they created the fossil fuel and nuclear industries (the latter, literally from scratch). The answer to THAT question should be self-evident.

          Instead we should be asking why the world as a whole continues to subsidize fossil fuels in the face of the massive threat of global warming at a rate of $10M per MINUTE, according to those commies at the IMF. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/may/18/fossil-fuel-companies-getting-10m-a-minute-in-subsidies-says-imf

          Perhaps VT Digger will cover that in the sequel to this “special report.”

        • Willem Post

          Lance regarding the lifetime benefit of a subsidy, i.e., taking the subsidies of 2013 and dividing by the 2013 energy production is likely not the best measure of $/kWh.

          A better measure is the lifetime measure:

          One subsidy dollar for a 60-year nuclear plant that has a CF = 0.90, provides many more kWh/$ than for a 25-year PV solar plant that has a CF = 0.14, as in Vermont.

          A subsidy dollar to nuclear is 60 x 0.90/25 x 0.14 = 15.42 times more productive than to PV solar.

          Some people will argue nuclear plants have “lived” only 40+ years, etc., but even at 40 years, it is 10.3 times, and I am using a generous 25 yr live of the wind turbine, which, based on past experience is more like 15 – 20 years.

          Some people will argue the 0.90 nuclear CF was not for the whole 40+ years, and they have a point, but during the past 10 years, it has been about 0.90.

          A subsidy dollar to nuclear is 60 x 0.90/25 x 0.30 = 7.2 times more productive than to wind.

          However, the quality of the energy is not the same.

          With increased wind energy on the grid there would be reductions in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, but to a significant extent they would be offset by:

          – The increased inefficient, part-load operation of the traditional generators.
          – The increased inefficient ramping operation, while at part load, of the balancing generators, such as CCGTs and OCGTs.
          – The increased hot, synchronous spinning requirements of the traditional generators.
          – The increased less-efficient scheduling of the traditional generators.


          • John Greenberg


            So now I’m “some people?” I don’t know whether that’s a promotion or a demotion.

            The points Willem says that “some people will argue” are points that I DID argue, in documented detail, here: http://vtdigger.wpengine.com/2015/09/04/wind-developer-gets-extension-to-study-windham-county-site/#comment-246332. I won’t repeat the arguments.

            Willem now suggests that he’s using “a generous 25 yr live [life] of the wind turbine.” But that’s not “generous” at all, since a wind project is more than just the turbine, and can therefore significantly outlive the turbine, just as most (all?) of the nuclear plants that have lived for 40 years have done so only after refurbishing or replacing major components like steam generators, condensers, transformers, and even turbines.

            In other words, when it comes to wind, Willem is assuming that project lifetimes are coterminous with the lifetimes of the turbines, and I very much doubt that will end up being the case. The turbine is surely the most expensive component of a project, but it is only one component. There are many other significant costs – about which he loves to complain elsewhere: for the permitting process, access roads, site preparation, towers, land, tax and other payments to towns, transmission lines, synchronous condensers, etc. When turbines actually require refurbishment or replacement, developers, not Willem, will decide whether it’s more economic to terminate the project or fix or replace the turbine. My guess is that in many cases, turbines will get fixed or replaced and projects will continue generating for another 20-25 years (or more).

            In sum, once again Willem is making counterfactually generous assumptions for nuclear plants: the oldest commercial plants are in their 40s and there are fewer of them than there are of plants which were shutdown far earlier) and the US nuclear fleet capacity factor in the last 40 years is 71%. (See link for details) At the same time, he’s being as stingy as possible when it comes to wind (and solar, see link above) projects, which could easily end up having double the life expectancy (or more) that he anticipates.

            Moreover, Willem is missing the same key point that I mentioned above in response to Lance Hagen. If the tax credits for wind and solar have performed as I believe they probably already have (only time will tell for certain), then these two industries will be price competitive without subsidies within the coming decade or so (and quite possibly MUCH sooner). If that proves to be the case, then the production of FUTURE plants, built without subsidies, will be if not the children, then the step children of the existing subsidies, without which these industries could not have grown, matured and become price competitive.

            That means that a subsidy granted in, say, 2013 to someone else’s solar project may have been responsible for my being able to build a totally unsubsidized project in 2023 which will then provide 25 years of additional production the US grid. Similarly, today’s US projects have benefited not only from US subsidies, but also from those in Germany, Spain and elsewhere, which increased the demand for photovoltaic production at key moments.

            I want to be clear. In my mind, that is precisely how subsidies SHOULD work, but it is NOT how they have worked in the US so far. Instead, for all energy sources but renewables in any case, subsidies have remained in place (sometimes they’ve varied in nature) for industries which became mature and highly profitable decades ago. There’s certainly an excellent possibility that this will recur with renewables subsidies as well: to be blunt, as industries mature and get more profitable, they can afford more and better lobbyists.

            My point is only that these attempts to evaluate subsidy “bang for the buck” will certainly remain totally useless until they are at least reformulated with a modicum of objectivity, and will probably remain futile even after that since the effects of subsidies are not all direct.

          • Willem Post

            John G.

            “My guess is that in many cases, turbines will get fixed or replaced and projects will continue generating for another 20-25 years (or more).”

            There is no need to guess, as there is plenty of evidence turbines are being replaced with new ones after about 10 years. Denmark, etc., has been doing it for at least 10 to 15 years.

            The new ones are better, just like computers and cars, are taller, and have greater capacity, MW, much to the consternation of nearby Danish residents, who after getting used to their 200 to 400 kW units, suddenly found themselves impacted by the infrasound of 2 to 3 MW units. Of course the new ones require new foundations and upgraded connections to the HV grid.

            Accordingly, Denmark, to keep social peace, has decided a few years ago to do its wind turbine build-outs OFFSHORE.

            Just to remind:

            – Denmark has the highest HOUSEHOLD electric rates (about 30 euro cent/kWh) in Europe (industry is too important, so it is mostly spared), with Germany a very close second.

            – Denmark could not have all its wind turbines, if it did not have access to Norway’s hydro plants for getting rid of energy (at low c/kWh) when the wind is too much, and taking energy from Norway (at high c/kWh) when wind is too little.

          • John Greenberg


            1) “There is no need to guess, as there is plenty of evidence turbines are being replaced with new ones after about 10 years. …. The new ones are better, just like computers and cars, are taller, and have greater capacity, MW ….”

            Since you apparently agree with me, then why would you use 25-years as the life expectancy of a wind project, when that’s only the lifetime of one component? Or more precisely, why not now acknowledge that basing your reasoning on that assumption is clearly prejudicial to wind projects by making it appear that up-front costs produce less power than they are likely to?

            For the record, the fact that the Danish have replaced turbines doesn’t PROVE that US developers will do so. Laws differ; regulatory contexts are different, etc. It does show that replacement is at least a plausible possibility, which is all that my argument above would require.

            2) As to Danish residential electric rates (based on high taxes and levies), I discussed them at length here: http://vtdigger.wpengine.com/2015/08/19/controversial-new-hampshire-powerline-to-bring-hydropower-to-all-of-new-england/#comment-243225, among other places.

            3) And as to your last remark, it is clear to anyone who thinks about this for more a few seconds that wind turbines alone cannot supply all the needs of a grid. Their output needs to be supplemented from other sources when the wind isn’t blowing (among other issues). Again, there’s been substantial discussion of that in these comments columns, and here, it’s a red herring.

        • Lance Hagen


          I did not take “subsidies of 2013 and dividing by the 2013 energy production” in my calculations, as you stated.

          What I did do is take the sum total of solar subsidies over the past 5 years. And then did a sum total of the power generated from solar over the next 25 years, assuming that for next 25 years they produced the same amount of power/year as they did in 2014.

          Then divided the total sum power for 25 years by the sum total of subsidy over the past 5 years. This nets out to 2.21 kWh/subsidy $.

          Now John Greenberg doesn’t seem to grasp the math that this is sum totals over 25 years divided by sum totals over 5 years (or he is just trying to confuse everyone). He keeps coming back to the argument that this is one year power output divided by one year of subsidies. It is not.

          John also doesn’t like the number of “$39 billion a year over the past 5 years on financing grants, subsidizing tax credits, guaranteeing loans, bailing out failed solar energy projects” as reported by “Filling the Solar Sinkhole: Billions of Bucks Have Delivered Too Little Bang”. But he doesn’t have a better number to support his claims.

          Just to keep this in perspective, in order for solar to match nuclear in kWh/subsidy $ (sum nuclear numbers over the last 65 years), subsidies for solar would need to range from 0.4 to 0.9 billion/year. This is quite a bit less than the $39 billion/years that has been reported. This means to have solar match nuclear they would have had to receive subsidies of less than 3% of what was reported.

          John Greenberg, if you come up with a better sum total for solar subsidies, let me know.

          • Willem post

            That a clever way to look at the subsidy numbers, i.e., taking the sum of 5 years of subsidies and then project the energy production for the next 25 years.

            It would be useful to do a sample calculation, with sources.

            Also, you need to determine the installed capacities at the beginning and end of the 5 year period, that way you get incremental capacity for incremental subsidies.

            It best to use the NREL data for capacity, as it includes utility and distributed, whereas EIA only includes utility. It makes quite a lot of difference.

            In my US Future Energy article, I show an sample calculation.

    • Willem Post


      “The article does imply the at hydro power and geo-thermal is viable in a free market.”

      Vermont is just about maxed out on hydro. Additional capacity can be obtained here and there, but do not expect too much.

      Vermont, and all of New England would be much better off with a lot more hydro energy from Canada.


      The hydro energy is:

      – Renewable, as it is made from rainwater
      – Very low in CO2 emissions/kWh
      – Very low in waste products and environmental impact/kWh, compared to wind and solar.
      – Available 24/7/365, unlike wind and solar, which are weather-dependent.
      – Steady, not variable, not intermittent, like wind and solar
      – Very low in energy cost/kWh; in case of New England, likely about 5 – 7 c/kWh, tied to annual average New England WHOLESALE prices which have averaged about 5 c/kWh for the past 5 years, due to an abundance of nearby, DOMESTIC, clean-burning, low-CO2-emitting, low-cost, natural gas.
      – Another major benefit is the output of hydro plants can be quickly varied, at minimal cost, and with no CO2 emissions, to balance any variable wind and solar energy. If natural gas-fired, gas turbines do the balancing they have to inefficiently ramp up and down, at part-load, i.e., more Btu/kWh, more CO2/kWh. See Notes.
      – A high ERoEI, due to the typical 100-year lives, and its
      – ERoEI is not decreasing, compared with those of fossil fuels.

      NOTE: Just as Denmark requires major grid connections to hydro plants of Norway and Sweden to balance its wind energy, so would New England need major connections to the hydro plants of Quebec, New Brunswick and Labrador.

      NOTE: Here is a website showing HVDC lines for load balancing between Denmark (a wind and thermal energy system) and Norway (a 98% hydro system). If it can be done between Denmark and Norway, likewise Hydro-Quebec could do load balancing with New England, with the proper HVDC transmission lines. The HVDC lines would negate any asynchronous condition of the Quebec and NE grids.


  • Kim Fried

    Great article even if it was a little hard to read. Well clearly the horse is out of the barn, or the gold rush is on, or Pandora’s box has been opened, or ready, shoot , aim, or………
    Vermont will never be the same thanks to our Governor and present legislature. Gone is the concern for a pristine state, gone is the most unspoiled state in New England, gone is the high regard for agricultural lands, gone is the highest regard for our wildlife and environment, gone is quality of our lives that we so enjoyed in Vermont, gone is…………….This article really shows what is going with the ridgeline and solar factories simply cash for the almighty dollar. The many developer and other involved development parties quotes in the article tell the story clearly, it’s all about the fed money coming in, the state subsidies, the jobs and the lack of any control by the state when it come to these factories. Nearly no mention or emphasis on the global warming issue. It’s a sad day when our representatives in Montpelier and our Governor have become lobbyists for the lobbyists and ignore the quality of life of the their constituent citizens. Maybe GMP and it’s new software can convince the PSB that when all the potential land based sites have been covered with industrial solar panels we can start with the lakes and ponds that have such terrific sun exposure. A bonus will be can move up in the national rankings and be first in the world to use and destroy our precious waters and wildlife for solar factories. Hey there is money to be made. Oh boy, oh boy, how great it is.

    • Neil Johnson

      What’s really interesting is that geo thermal is one of the most efficient, and makes sense without any grants, etc.

      Why aren’t we doing that? Oh…because big business isn’t tied up with our lobbyists and government officials.

      And…..we could have an untouched land scape, void of all these local solar farms that are all close to the scenic corridors and fields, because it’s easy pickings and the insider trading has done away with all zoning or local input.

      We’ve been sand bagged. Next up our school system.

      We need a drastic change in representation.

      • Kevin Wyman

        Vermont isn’t doing geothermal because that resource is non-existent in the Northeast without drilling very large distances into the earth’s crust (on the order of 6 miles). The ROI on that is cost prohibitive at the moment (not to mention it is prone to causing earthquakes). If the authors of the piece were referencing geo-exchange systems (heat pumps), those use energy not produce energy. Geothermal is not that efficient from a cycle standpoint, but since the fuel input, hot water or steam generated from the earth’s pressure and mantle, is not limited, the process inefficiency can be overlooked (look up Rankine Cycle for discussion on cycle efficiency).

        • Willem post


          You are talking about deep drilling for getting high temperature to make steam, etc., which would not be a good idea in New England. Try Yellowstone Park.

          Ground source (near constant temperature) heat pumps for heating AND cooling are much more efficient than air source widely varying temperatures) heat pumps for heating and cooling.

          The drawback is high initial cost, about $30,000 for a new house. But if a new house is highly efficient, then your heating and cooling bills will be near zero, AND your electric bill will be tiny. Add about 6 – 8 kW of solar panels to the roof and your electric bill will be near zero as well.

          Ground source IS geothermal.

  • John Lesher

    With all of these projects underway, I am curious if the mathematical analysis of the net carbon effect of creating this infra-structure vs. leaving a field or forest fallow has ever been done? Surely, manufacturing and transporting Chinese solar panels to the US must have a pretty big carbon footprint. Is there a net benefit from a carbon perspective?

    • Annette Smith

      The answer is no. I inquired because of the Allco Renewable Energy plan to cut 27 acres of forest for 4 MW of solar in Bennington. It is a complicated equation depending on the type of forest, lots of variables. But the state has offered no guidance on this, except to allow it to happen.

      This article http://www.universityherald.com/articles/23234/20150904/trees-improve-quality-of-air-by-decreasing-pollution-levels.htm is about a recently-released study http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S135223101530248X that looks at the contribution of trees in urban areas, which is relevant to the Bennington solar situation since the forest proposed to be cut is next to high volume traffic areas.

      • John Greenberg

        John Lesher:

        Despite what Annette Smith says, the answer is yes.

        There are actually numerous scientific studies answering these questions. While they differ in some of the details of the answer, they all reach the same conclusion: energy inputs in wind projects are paid back within the first year (some studies make it 6 months of operation) and wind is “a useful strategy to achieve the Kyoto protocol agreements and to reduce the energy dependence for fossil fuels.” http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Valerio_Lo_Brano/publication/222226993_Energy_performances_and_life_cycle_assessment_of_an_Italian_wind_farm/links/02e7e52bee1bf3a0a0000000.pdf

        Here is a tiny sample of some studies not including the one just cited.:

        — “Life cycle analysis of 4.5 MW and 250 W wind turbines” http://www.ewp.rpi.edu/hartford/~ernesto/F2014/MMEES/Papers/ENERGY/7AlternativeEnergy/Wind/Tremeac2009-LCAWindTurbines.pdf

        — “Comparative life cycle assessment of 2.0 MW wind turbines “http://www.ourenergypolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/turbines.pdf

        — “Life Cycle Analysis of Wind Turbine” http://cdn.intechopen.com/pdfs/29930.pdf

        — “Life cycle energy and greenhouse emissions analysis of wind turbines and the effect of size on energy yield” http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364032109001403

        Here’s a study comparing wind to solar and other sources:
        Comparative study: “Life Cycle Assessment Harmonization Results and Findings” http://www.nrel.gov/analysis/sustain_lca_results.html

        Here are some on solar photovoltaics:

        — “What is the energy and carbon payback time for PV panels in the UK?” http://info.cat.org.uk/questions/pv/what-energy-and-carbon-payback-time-pv-panels-uk (reviews several studies)

        — “A Comparative Analysis of Energy Costs of Photovoltaic, Solar Thermal, and Wind Electricity Generation Technologies”
        — “Dynamic Hybrid Life Cycle Assessment of Energy and Carbon of Multicrystalline Silicon Photovoltaic Systems” http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es1026695

        • John Lesher

          Hi John Greenberg;
          Thanks for the links to the reports. In reviewing those reports that relate to solar projects I cannot find any analysis of the net effect of the carbon benefits of leaving the field or forest alone. It is a “carbon sink” and the changes in land use that an industrial sized solar project would engender will have a net effect on the efficiency (benefit) of that carbon sink. That is the analysis that I am looking for. If you have any resources that might provide information on that type of comparison (solar developed vs. undeveloped land) then I would appreciate it. Thank you in advance

          • John Greenberg

            John Lesher:

            I have not looked for studies answering the specific question you’re asking; you can do so as easily as I could. But I can make a few points, which may help guide your research process.

            First, you ask about “the carbon benefits of leaving the field or forest alone.” First, I think we can eliminate the “or.”

            When a solar project is put in what was previously a forest, then trees which are a carbon sink obviously need to be removed. So that step clearly sets the project’s net carbon “contribution” back right at the outset. (More below).

            But how does putting solar panels in a field change the carbon benefits of a field? As I think about this, I don’t see ANY impact at all, since in most instances, the field will continue to grow around the panels. What am I missing?

            So, if my first point is correct, then we’ve narrowed your question to one of putting a solar project in what used to be a forest.

            I have taken a brief look at studies on the carbon effect of cutting down a forest, and the ones I reviewed end up with enormously different conclusions from one another. It turns out that there are MANY factors involved, including, the age of the forest, the species of trees involved, and the forest’s location, among others.

            A third issue is that NO energy generating projects show carbon reductions: whatever you do to produce electricity is going to put SOME carbon into the atmosphere over its lifecycle.

            But different types of generators produce radically different AMOUNTS of carbon (and other greenhouse gases): specifically, fossil fuel (coal, natural gas, oil) plants add vastly more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than ANY of the alternatives: solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, geothermal, etc. (There are a lot of open questions about biomass which don’t need to be raised or answered here).

            Therefore, the benefit of using, in this case, photovoltaic solar to produce electricity is obtained by the DIFFERENCE between the solar generator and an alternative: e.g. coal or natural gas. Put differently, the carbon “benefit” is really a reduction in harm, not a positive contribution.

            All this suggests to me that 1) there may well be NO generic answer to your question; 2) you will probably need to be specific as to the location and nature of a given project; and 3) that the answer will need to be constituted by netting out the loss of the forest vs. the reduced harm caused by substituting solar power for natural gas (if we’re talking about New England).

            I want to make clear that I am really engaged in thinking out loud, so to speak, based on some reading of the scientific literature, but certainly not the kind of comprehensive understanding that others may be able to bring to the question. I hope that my comments are somewhat useful to you, and would be even happier if they spur someone more knowledgeable than I to critique what I’ve just written.

            Finally, I think it’s critical to add two last points. First, carbon dioxide is NOT the only greenhouse gas we need to consider: methane is a potent contributor to the greenhouse effect, and improper fracking techniques (assuming there is such a thing as “proper” fracking techniques), for example, can release a lot of it.

            Second, global warming is not the only environmental issue we should be concerned with in comparing electricity sources.

            Fossil fuel plants (and the processes involved in obtaining the fuels for them, and in the case, of coal, of disposing of the waste products) release all kinds of environmental toxins with well-known adverse health and environmental impacts. The construction of hydro dams releases vast quantities of mercury, another well-known environmental toxin, and in addition totally eliminates whole ecosystems which used to be where the reservoir ends up Nuclear plants are relatively low-carbon, but the nuclear lifecycle releases radiation at various points (especially in the mining and enrichment of fuel) on an ongoing basis, and, in the case of accidents, releases can become catastrophic. Etc.

            Global warming is an urgent problem; but it is NOT the only one we need to consider from an environmental perspective.

          • John Greenberg

            Kathy Nelson:

            I addressed the issue of trees above.

            My reference to fields, and I assume John Lesher’s as well, is to OPEN land, that is, land without trees.

            If you can tell us how placing solar panels reduces the carbon benefit of an open field, please do.

        • Willem Post

          John G.

          Wind Energy, a Medium ERoEI Energy Source:

          Typically, it takes about 0.9 – 1.2 years (depending on capacity factors, useful service lives, energy used to get materials and labor to the site, energy used during construction, etc.) to recover the EI that went into building, installing, and operation and maintenance of the wind turbines, and all the components, required for a complete, turnkey, multi-turbine, onshore, wind turbine plant, including connection to the HV grid. The energy should be measured from mine-mouth or well-head to the end of decommissioning of the wind turbine plant, and should include the embedded energy of the supporting equipment and infrastructures from mine-mouth to decommissioning. Experience of the past 30 years indicates, wind turbine useful service lives average 15 – 20 years. Typically, they need major overhauls before their 20th year.

          What would be the ERoEI of wind energy, if 75% of the EI were from low ERoEI energy sources and 25% from higher ERoEI energy sources? It likely would take 3 – 4 years to recover the EI. The much lower wind ERoEI (further reduced by buffering) would no longer be viable in a modern, high-level economy! See note under Building Out Wind and Solar Systems for buffering explanation.

          The ERoEI of wind need to be reduced to their buffered values, because the significantly increased variable, intermittent wind and solar energy would require:

          – Back-up generating capacity adequacy, MW, to provide energy when wind and solar energy are insufficient.
          – Back-up flexible generating capacity adequacy, MW, for inefficiently ramping up and down, at part load, to balance the variable energy.
          – Transmission and distribution systems adequacy.
          – Energy storage systems adequacy.

          • Kathy Nelson

            John Greenberg says,

            “But how does putting solar panels in a field change the carbon benefits of a field? As I think about this, I don’t see ANY impact at all, since in most instances, the field will continue to grow around the panels. What am I missing?”

            The point you are likely missing here is that solar panels don’t work when shaded by trees. Trees provide more than just a carbon sink. Trees provide fuel for heat, they can provide food for both humans and animals, they can provide protection for animals in the winter and from the hot sun in the summer, they provide an aesthetic beauty that lifts the spirit and makes so many struggles worthwhile. Those things far outweigh a bunch of glass and metal that will only work 14% of the time to produce monetary profits for a few.

            Thank you for helping us understand you better, John.

  • Keith Stern

    It shows just how short sighted our elected officials are wasting taxpayer money for inefficient, expensive, and temporary energy which still requires the need for fossil fuel use instead of investing the money on a real energy breakthrough that will provide an efficient and less expensive energy source possibly in the very near future. The more money diverted from R+D the longer it will take to find.

    • “It shows just how short sighted our elected officials are wasting taxpayer money for inefficient, expensive, and temporary energy…”

      If you only knew. Or cared to investigate sequestered tech, Tesla et al, as an open minded skeptic.

      Do I know? Yup, and I would tell how I know but you wouldn`t believe me. It`s enough just to get people to take their blinders off for a minute. Sep 11 for example.

      Our elected leaders,with exceptions, don`t dare cross the corporatocracy staus quo.

  • John Freitag

    Thanks VTDigger for focusing on this issue. One important thing that needs to be addressed is that the vast majority of these large scale projects are being built to meet the renewable energy needs of Mass. and Conn. and not for Vermont’s renewable energy requirements.
    Today, Tuesday September 15, at 7 p.m. the Strafford Selectboard will be holding an Informational Meeting on Renewable Energy Credits/ Vermont’s Energy Policy and Large Scale Solar Project like Elizabeth Mine Solar 1.
    Professor Kevin B. Jones will be giving a presentation on the issue and legislators , Chris Recchia from the Public Service Department, GMP, and developers will be giving their perspective on using Vermont to meet other states renewable energy requirements. All are welcome.

    • Willem Post


      Vermont has to do its part to help OTHER states meet THEIR Re goals.

      Vermont does that by giving subsidies to multi-millionaires (in state and out of state, who band together in LLCs, and who have no-risk, lucrative tax shelters) to cover our meadows with panels made with China’s dirty coal plants, which have an embedded CO2 2 times as high as those made in other countries.

      Hey, who cares, as long as WE are clean.

  • Thank you, Erin, for such a well researched article. VEC employees have been overwhelmed by the number of inquiries and applications from larger scale solar developers.

    The intention of our work has been to utilize distributed generation to make the grid more efficient. Place the generation near the load so that additional infrastructure is not needed to support the projects.

    We need to develop legislation and policy that focuses on efficient use of our existing resources.

    • Willem Post


      Yours, a sane voice in the wilderness.

      Will anyone listen?

      Oh no, because it might slow down the gold rush.

      Got to be up and running to get those subsidies before the end of 2016.

      The PSB will do everything to make the gold rush happen, because “that is what the legislators told us”

      Miss Piggy: Moi?

  • Groupings of hundreds of solar panels are about as attractive as New Jersey’s acres of large oil tanks. At least the tanks can be painted with interesting murals.

  • Walter Gustafson

    As someone who grew up in this state, and watched countless numbers of my friends leave Vermont for other job opportunities, it’s great to see the state taking change and creating a industry that people can feel good about.

    • Willem Post


      The State of Vermont acted as an ENABLER to attract multi-millionaires, from instate and out of state, who hide their identities by banding together in LLCs, and who will have risk-free, lucrative tax shelters, by putting up hundreds of acres of solar panels in meadows, etc., all at the expense of already-struggling households and businesses, who have been trying to make ends meet in a near zero-real-growth economy during the past 5 years, and who will be rewarded with higher electric rates than they would have been without all these panels, while doing NOTHING to MEASURABLY affect the climate, the weather, global warming, etc.

      Something to feel really good about.

  • Christina Fornaciari

    accelerating deployment of renewable, dont need roadblocks

    As the repercussions of climate change are being experienced far and wide across the planet, it is great (and necessary) to see Vermont transitioning away from fossil fuels and towards energy independence. We must be accelerating the deployment of renewables if we are to meet our state goal of being 90% renewable by 2050, a goal that requires swift and bold action. Viva la solar!

    • Kathy Nelson

      How funny, I think the same zeal was once applied to coal power. Of course we will now need more coal, oil and natural gas to keep the junk wind and solar operating won’t we?

      The 90 by 250 is not a mandate by the way. It’s just a political corporate crony delusion.

  • Ryan Garvey

    It’s interesting to hear people talking about “Big Solar” when the Vermont Clean Energy Industry Report just showed that small businesses dominating the sector, with about 81% of businesses having 10 or fewer employees and 65.8% reporting five or fewer.

  • Kim Fried

    Glad you feel good Walter, that’s all it is. What about your neighbors and other Vermont citizens? They don’t count in your feel good euphoria?

    • Walter Gustafson

      -90 percent of Vermonters agree that changing the state’s energy system is important;

      -74 percent agree that this change should occur as quickly as possible;

      -79 percent agree that this change is possible through energy efficiency and switching to renewable sources of energy


      • Tom Sullivan

        Agreed Walter,
        With a few exceptions, it’s a silent majority Walter. Ignore the haters.

        • Annette Smith

          Excuse me, but people expressing concern are not “haters” and that attribution and language does nothing to help move us to a better place.

          By your definition, I suppose I would be lumped into the “hater” category yet I have lived off-grid with solar for more than 25 years in Vermont. I am dismayed by how industrial renewablists have adopted the fossil fuel industry’s model of externalizing costs onto others, and take no responsibility for the problems.

          We can and will do better if we work together in a positive spirit. Emperiousness and the attitude of entitlement are what have gotten us into this mess. Please respect the people who are working to bring some rational rules to what is currently “the wild west” (quoting a GMP employee at a presentation to a Regional Planning Commission last year).

          • Tom Sullivan

            Oh come on Annette,

            When people who oppose renewable energy use the terms:

            Solar Malignancies
            renewable destruction
            political corporate crony delusion (my favorite)
            junk renewables
            industrial junk yards

            It gives one the impression of hatred, and not working together in a positive spirit.

        • Steve Comeau


          A very silent majority indeed. And a majority of no action as well, after all it it pretty much “business as usual” regarding energy use in Vermont. If people were really serious about energy and climate change then there would be no energy using second homes, airline flights would be way down, and there would be many fewer cars on the road. But that is not happening of course as life and energy use goes on pretty much as before.

          Sure perhaps climate change and limited resources should be taken more seriously, but for now at least that is not the case.

          The opponents of large scale industrial wind and solar are making valid points. In order for renewables to make much of a difference they need to be scaled out massively and that will have large negative impacts. It will be a lost cause after all if nothing is done about the consumption side, where there is very little interest in doing much. We will know when there is a serious effort to deal this about fossil fuels and climate change when it is the NON frequent flyer at the airport and gets fast tracked through security, gets boarding preferences, and a free upgrade to first class. But at this time, most incentives go to the big energy users.

          • Willem Post


            When it come to future PV system build outs, you have seen nothing yet.

            All this is small potatoes.

            Go to the Southwest, rent a car, drive around and you will see many square miles of panels, courtesy of federal loan guarantees, meaning banks get their money back, it things do not work out.

            A risk-free rescue of the world from global warming.

      • Lance Hagen

        Survey by “Energy Action Network” …. really.

        How about referencing a objective organization versus an advocacy group.

        From their web site “OUR GOAL: To meet 90% of Vermont’s energy needs through renewable energy and increased efficiency by 2050”

        Another idiotic survey to justify their position.

  • Megan Noonan

    Most, but not all, Vermonters support clean energy and solar power in particular. Yet this article seems bent on casting the positive growth of renewable solar energy in a negative light – terms like solar “gold rush” and solar “explosion” are hardly unbiased. Why the sour slant on clean energy? And since when is the climate-denying Ethan Allen Institute a credible source for information on energy matters?

    I’d be interested in hearing what people have to say about why they want solar panels on their rooftops or fields. Where’s the part in this series that describes Vermonters’ strong desire for energy independence? How about the part where most Vermonters believe in the catastrophic effects of climate change and want to do something about it? Or the idea that supporting local jobs and local energy is a good thing for our economy and our state?

    If this is a time when people can do well by doing good, I say more power to them!

    • Willem post

      But, Megan, a PV explosion IS occurring, and a gold rush IS taking place, all to cash in on the subsidies before the end of 2016.

      It IS a Wild East in Vermont, the RE world leader, according to Klein. We have not heard a peep.

  • David Schoales

    One aspect you haven’t focused on is the growth in municipal solar projects. Brattleboro Town Schools are now saving over $13000 per year from a contract to purchase credits which enabled a local firm to build a 500 kw array, and the Windham Solid Waste Management District has contracted to fill our covered landfill with as many as 5mw of panels, which will reduce electricity costs and provide subsidies for our waste management assessments to every town in the county. The town has also contracted to purchase credits and is looking for more opportunities.

    • Willem Post


      That money is a BRIBE, paid by the PV project owners, to get a compliant community to agree put up the panels.

      It is hush money that comes out of Vermonter’s pockets.

  • One half of one sentence in the Erin Mansfield report jumps out and deserves very special attention.

    It is: “…..and supporters hope that solar energy use will help combat climate change.”

    Wow, supporters “hope” solar will help combat climate change. This comment has to have the sound of heresy to those counting on solar to save the world.

    Beyond the current money grubbing to grab overly generous tax benefits by the developers and wealthy investors, we have repeatedly been bombarded with the cry that solar and wind will make the difference between mankind surviving or perishing.

    Now, the vtdigger has reduced the cherished “renewable energy to save the world” dogma peddled by Bill McKibben, Paul Burns, Tony Klein and others to a mere hope?

    Good for you Erin Mansfield……..you have bravely declared that the Emperor has no clothes.

    Here’s Erin’s comment in context:

    “The growing size and amount of solar arrays is directly related to a 30 percent federal tax break for unlimited investments in solar projects. The tax breaks are designed to drive the nation away from fossil fuels, and supporters hope that solar energy use will help to combat climate change”

  • Kathy Nelson

    Here’s what’s cooking in “renewable” destruction (ISO NE interconnection requests:

    Ranger Solar (New York):

    Highgate 20MW app. date – 8/12/2015
    Ludlow 20 MW 8/12/2015
    Randolph Cent. 20 MW 8/27/2015
    Sheldon 20MW 8/27/2015
    Barton 20MW 8/27/205
    Pittsford 20MW 9/1/2015

    (A dairy farmer in Irasburg turned down an offer to destroy 300 acres of his farm for one of these solar malignancies.)

    Industrial Wind – Travis Belisle
    Swanton 19.85MW 2/27/2015

    Industrial Wind – David Blittersdorf
    Irasburg 4.98MW 2/27/2015

    (Both Belisle and Blittersdorf have active complaints against them for illegal MET towers.)

    Industrial Wind – Iberdrola (Spain)
    Windham/Grafton 96.9MW 12/22/2014

    (Even though Windham’s town plan forbids MET towers and industrial wind turbines the corporate-owned Public Service Board has granted Iberdrola a three year extension for their MET towers.)

    Industrial Wind – Iberdrola (Spain)
    Deerfield 30MW 9/19/2014

    (The Deerfield project is inside of the Green Mountain National Forest. Thanks a lot Welch, Leahy, Sanders for not caring about our Vermont forests).

  • Neil Johnson

    Why are we subsidizing the least green method of energy…according to this report…

    To know how much energy a project produces in a year, physicists multiply the theoretical capacity of a project by the number of hours in a year (8,760) by the “capacity factor,” which measures the efficiency of the technology.

    “While the capacity factor for solar is 14 percent in Vermont, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, wind by comparison is 33 percent efficient, hydropower is 38 percent, geothermal is 70 percent, and nuclear energy is 90 percent. ”

    Insider trading….geothermal approaches nuclear power….

    Thankfully it’s much easier to decommission a solar array than an nuclear power plant.

    The only reason anyone is even considering this is all the money being thrown in the deal to make it work. id…IT DOESN”T WORK ON IT”S OWN!

    Geothermal does!!!!!

    • Willem Post


      “Thankfully it’s much easier to decommission a solar array than an nuclear power plant.”

      In about 25 years there will be huge piles of hazardous waste called solar panels. They are little different from HD TVs and HD computer panels.

  • Steve Comeau

    This article is confusing efficiency with capacity factor when it states that “The efficiency of any type of energy is measured by a physics term called the “capacity factor,” which is usually about 14 percent for solar in Vermont”.

    The efficiency of a solar panel is determined by the ratio of power produced by the panel compared to solar power hitting the solar panel. It varies by panel type and is about 15%. The capacity factor is the ratio of how much energy is produced compared to how much could be produced if the sun was shining at optimum brightness all the time. So the capacity factor will be the same for a given area and is due to length of day and cloudiness, but efficiency can be improved as the solar cell designs become more efficient.

    It is misleading and pointless to compare solar panel efficiency and capacity factor to thermal power plants like nuclear. The “fuel” for the solar panels is always burning anyway, so efficiency is not an issue. A more useful metric would be to compare the amount of energy produced per acre of land required. That really is the issue at hand, as the impact related to solar panels is that they take up large amounts of space to deliver relatively small amounts of energy that is only available when the sun shines.

    • Willem Post


      Assume about 1 MW of panels on 5 acres = 5 x 4047 m2

      1 MW x 8760 h/y x 0.14 = 1226.4 MWh/y, or 0.3 MWh/m2

      If Vermont wanted 90% of its total primary energy, 148.4 TBtu in 2010, not just electrical energy, to be from solar, then
      148.4 TBtu/3,413 Btu/kWh = 43.48 x 10 to the 9th kWh in 2010.

      For comparison, Vermont consumes about 6 x 10 to the 9th kWh of ELECTRICAL energy.

      That would require 43.48 x 10 to the 9th/(8760 x 0.14) = 35.87 x 10 to the 6th kW of panels = 35.87 x 10 to the 3th MW of panels, which would cost 35,870 MW x 3.5 million/MW = $125.5 billion.

      Land area = 35870 x 5 = 179,350 acres

      Just getting all out electrical energy from solar would be 6/43.48 x $125.5 b = $17.32 billion.

      Land area = 6/43.48 x 179,350 acres = 24,749 acres.

      • Willem Post


        1226.4 MWh/y/(5 x 4047) = 0.06 MWh/y/m2

  • Ron Pulcer

    Regarding: “The plummeting cost of solar panels in the past decade is another contributing factor. The cheapest ones come from China, and while they’re slightly less efficient than the more expensive products from the U.S., Korea or Japan, developers can install inexpensive panels across a larger land area to produce the same amount of energy.”

    If the federal and state incentives were not as high, how would that affect the choice of solar panels to install? Putting up less efficient solar panels from China across more acreage is only profitable if the incentives are more lucrative, which this article is pointing out.

    If we are going to build more solar farms by out of state developers, as opposed to more rooftop solar by large number of residents, then the state should have an efficiency requirement (standard) on solar panels, such that they could reduce the footprint of the larger solar farms. We should be using more efficient solar panels from U.S., Korea, Japan or even Germany, and use up less land to get similar amount of KW.

    There should be incentives for “manufacturing” solar panels in America, versus just installing more and more panels from China, that are not as efficient.

    Has Trump heard about these less efficient solar panels from China? If he did, I’m sure he would have a few off the cuff remarks. Last night he was going after Ford Motor’s plans to build / move a plant to Mexico.

    Rutland is now Solar Capital of NE, but there is not one single solar panel “manufacturing plant” there.

    Suniva, a U.S. manufacturer of “high-efficiency crystalline silicon solar cells and modules” opened a new plant in Saginaw, Michigan in 2014, re-using a former Sears warehouse:


    Suniva announced second wave of hiring in December 2014:


    How about some solar manufacturing jobs in Vermont? High-efficiency solar panels!

    • Willem Post


      IBM moved out!

      What company would move into Vermont to make high-efficiency solar panels (25% efficient?), when nearly every one is loosing money making 15% efficient panels, due to over capacity.

      Where would the talented people come from? Relocate?

      It would take a LOT of state subsidies to make that happen.

      • Ron Pulcer


        I agree, it is probably too late now to entice solar manufacturing in Vermont. As the article has pointed out that the current subsidies, while probably necessary in the beginning are too high, and thus is causing other choices (panel efficiency and numbers of acres) to be sub-optimal.

        Let’s see if Suniva is still around in Saginaw a few years from now. But they did locate in existing vacant warehouse, rather than build a new factory. They have access to Interstate which my area of Vermont does not. Saginaw has traditionally been a manufacturing center, just like Flint, and has had it’s tough times (just like Rutland and Springfield). Springfield has vacant manufacturing buildings and access to Interstate. Springfield and Rutland had a manufacturing workforce at one time, but not as much anymore.

        As far as subsidies, Suniva has been awarded a $2.5 million Michigan Business Development Program performance-based grant, according to the release. How much did Vermont spend to keep IBM and they sold out anyways?

        So what’s our alternative? Keep buying less-efficient solar panels from China? Vermont state govt. (taxpayers) keep giving subsidies to retain companies that were going to leave anyways, versus subsidies for newer technology and newer plants?

        There certainly are no easy answers.

  • John Greenberg

    I join others in noting that the formatting of this page is REALLY annoying. Indeed, there were parts of the article that simply disappeared on my computer under the pictures. The comments don’t work normally, etc.

    Restoring normal formatting would be a great boon to all of us.

  • bob zeliff

    1st This article is very well written and very informative. Well Done

    Solar is still an emerging technology with great potential for improve efficiency and much reduced costs.

    It is a well established fact that to accelerate that advance of new technology the “pump has to be primed”..ie the incentives. Technology follows the “S” curve for competativeness. Old technologies are at the top of the curve…low cost but peaking out. New technologies are at the bottom of the “S” that is more expensive but have the potential for much lower costs in the future and overtaking “old” technology in time.

    So it makes good sense NOW in the long term to “prime the pump” for new technologies.
    The impacts of fossil fuels on global warming hugely strengthens this argument.

    For those who dislike incentives, I wish they would speak up to the US congress and eliminate the approx $20B we give to the very mature, very profitable oil industry. Or why we still give many, many Billions of subsidies to the obsolete Nuclear industry.

    Many Vermont business people what more and more tax incentives and other subsidies to attract and keep business and jobs in Vermont. Solar subsidies are but a fraction of than…and have proved successful in attracting out of state investment to build jobs and energy savings in Vermont.

    Opposition to solar makes no business or environmental sense to me.

    • willem post

      bob zeliff,

      PV solar is not a new technology. It is at least 80 years old.

      We are not talking pie in the sky, but mass production.

      Mass production of solar began about 15 years ago. Panels had 13% conversion efficiencies. At present, mass-produced panels have about 15% conversion efficiencies.

      Very significant research has already been performed over the last 40 years, mostly driven by the space program.

      As a result, boutique panels do exist with over 35% conversion efficiency, but they are exotic, very expensive, used in satellites.

      Calling for more research likely will have little result regarding mass production of panels with higher conversion efficiencies.

  • Just want to give a point of view from a small scale solar installer. As a native Vermonter, I do not want to leave Vermont, my family, and my roots. As an engineer, the options are very limited in rural Vermont. I chose to start a solar company, as a viable future for my family, and leave IBM.

    That said, I am sure far less VT jobs have been created by the large solar farms, with the exception of AllEarth, and maybe some others, who employ local folks. Many of the large scale commercial mounts are installed by firms from Arizona and the like.

  • bill_christian

    Erin tells us that the Ethan Allen Institute (paid for by the Koch coal-oil-gas corporation) says we’d need 100,000 acres of solar panels to provide all our electricity. That’s pretty stupid, because we don’t need to produce all our electricity from solar. We have wind and hydro, in-state and imported. And we have more than 6 million acres, so a few thousand of solar panels is something we can do, if we care about our childrens’ future.

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