By Johanna Miller
Net metering is one of Vermont’s most successful renewable energy programs. It makes it possible for Vermonters interested in generating their own renewable power — most often solar — to put a system on their home or property and offset their electric bills. It’s a good program for customers, who want to wean off expensive fossil fuels and stabilize their long-term electricity costs. It’s also good for utilities, which can use solar customers’ valuable excess power on hot, sunny days to offset the high price of buying peak, dirty power off the market.
The program has evolved significantly since it started in 1998, expanding as public interest in small, distributed, renewable energy has grown, and making Vermont’s net metering program one of the strongest in the country — until now.
Several utilities in Vermont have now met or are rapidly closing in on the state-mandated 4% cap, meaning that they are no longer required by state law to allow their customers to net meter. The result? Some Vermonters who want to go solar — depending on where they live — can’t, or soon might not be able to.
For Jeff Forward, the chair of the Richmond climate action committee, this situation is deeply troubling.
“This program made it possible for me to put together a net metered solar project that meets the electricity needs of my family and five other neighboring households,” said Forward. “The fact that hundreds of families across Vermont now can’t do the same is a huge disappointment. We have to address this issue quickly, and ensure that all Vermonters who want to invest in renewable power for themselves and the benefit of the state can.”
It’s a problem with many negative ramifications, and one that state leaders are working to fix. The Public Service Department is convening developers, utilities and renewable energy advocates but agreement on the right fix, however, isn’t yet clear.
The Vermont Electric Cooperative — the state’s second largest utility — stopped taking net metering projects in July, leaving many solar-interested customers in the lurch. In an apparent attempt to resurrect their program, VEC recently petitioned the Public Service Board on its proposed solution. Their request for a 12.5¢/kWh rate (far below their retail rates) is a radically different and, many argue, woefully inadequate solution.
“VEC’s proposal drastically under-values the full benefits of renewable net metering, including its recent role in deferring one transmission upgrade representing a savings of $250 million to all Vermonters,” said Renewable Energy Vermont Executive Director Gabrielle Stebbins. “Their proposal is assured to stop net metering by customers of all types — farmers, small businesses and homeowners — in the VEC service territory.”
Everyday more Vermonters want to invest in distributed, renewable, local energy. But without a fix to net metering — such as removing or significantly raising the utility cap, exempting residential systems from the cap and maintaining the current or similar rate structure — they won’t be able to.
A swift solution that strengthens, expands and stabilizes this successful program is essential. Those who agree should make their voice heard to the Vermont Public Service Department, lawmakers and their utility.