Green Mountain leads way in solar energy

STARKSBORO — A resident in Starksboro is realizing that, when it comes to Vermont utility companies, not all solar projects are created equal.
Though one Vermont utility is offering generous incentives to promote solar project, the same isn’t true at other utility companies in the state — something homeowners and some legislators would like to see change as a way to promote the creation of more solar projects.
That’s true of Starksboro resident Dennis Hysko, who first became excited about solar energy after working on the Robinson Elementary School board. The board and the town of Starksboro are collaborating on a joint plan to install a solar array to power town and school buildings, and Hysko was inspired investigate solar possibilities for his own home.
Working with Williston-based AllEarth Renewables, he decided to install a solar array that will generate an estimated 5,640 kilowatthours per year. What he learned, though, is that different utility companies in the state offer different incentives for user-generated solar power.
Green Mountain Power, the utility that would be accepting the school and town’s solar electricity, offers a premium for electricity that the facility generates, and pays customers for any excess power they generate.
But Central Vermont Public Service (CVPS), the utility that covers Hysko’s home, doesn’t offer such a premium. CVPS spokesman Steve Costello explained that the company is following Vermont’s “net metering” law, which does not require utilities to pay homeowners for any additional power they feed into the utility grid.
The system works like this: A homeowner who generates electricity using renewable resource, like Hysko, feeds that energy into the power grid. They are called a “net metering” customer. If the customer uses more electricity that he generates on his own, the customer pays the utility for the difference in energy.
On the other hand, if the homeowner generates more electricity in a month than he used, the utility records a credit for the excess kilowatt-hours towards the customer’s next bill. If, at the end of the year, a net metering customer still has a credit on the bill, that credit reverts to the utility.
“You hear about how Vermont’s pushing the ‘green state’ and everything, and then you find out that if I do provide a lot of electricity, the utility gets it,” Hysko said.
Costello said CVPS is focusing on its “Cow Power” renewable energy program (which produces electricity using methane captured from cow manure) rather than solar power, and the premium difference is a matter of the CVPS and Green Mountain Power focusing on two different kinds of renewable power.
For Hysko, the lack of that premium wasn’t enough to dissuade him from installing the solar array. He’s moving ahead with the project, though he jokes that he’ll be the homeowner with “every light in the house on” at the end of the year to use up any excess power he may have generated.
GMP, on the other hand, has opted to build what it calls its SolarGMP program. The program, the company says, is designed to pay customers with solar installations according to the value of the energy they generate. 
In addition to offsetting the cost of otherwise buying electricity — a value of around 12 or 13 cents per kWh — the utility pays an additional 6 cents for every kWh generated by a customer’s solar array. If the customer generates any excess electricity, they earn around 19 cents per kWh.
Spokeswoman Dottie Schnure said SolarGMP is a win-win situation for GMP and its customers, because the bulk of solar energy generation comes during summer “peak” periods when electricity is at its highest demand. GMP says that buying solar power helps reduce the need to purchase additional, much more expensive power during these peak periods.
Secondly, the company hopes the premium will encourage more customers to develop solar arrays. Schnure said it’s working. She’s heard from solar development companies that they target the GMP service area because of the SolarGMP program, and some customers looking to build or buy a home have told her they’re looking exclusively in the GMP service area because of the solar perks.
Costello, on the other hand, said that customers generating solar power are already being subsidized by the utility, because when CVPS credits a net metering customer each month it is placing a value on the excess power at the retail rate even though for the utility it is essentially treated as wholesale energy.
Schnure disagreed.
“We designed our program so that this is not a subsidy but it’s in fact an economic choice for our customers,” Schnure said.
Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln, wishes the GMP concept could go statewide, though he commended CVPS for their work in renewable energy so far. He introduced a bill this past year to do just that, but the bill was introduced late in the legislative session and didn’t receive much attention.
“I think we as a matter of public policy need to figure out ways to make the economy work better for people to move into generating their own power, and generating power for the grid,” Fisher said. “It has to be done in a way that works well for utilities, and that’s why GMP has really led the way with their promotion.”
Hysko also hopes that eventually CVPS’s policy, and those of other utilities in the state, will change. For now, though, he’s willing to make an investment in solar that he estimates will cost him around $12,000, regardless of the premium that he will or will not receive for his excess power. 
“My concern is that every year, (the cost of) electricity is going to be going up,” said Hysko.
Reporter Kathryn Flagg is at [email protected].

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