GMP-Panton effort slow to power up: Learning curve over, company now moving

PANTON — Green Mountain Power’s town-wide effort in Panton to make town buildings more energy efficient and to help residents and business owners’ properties with energy audits has not gone as smoothly as GMP or town officials had hoped.
But both parties remain optimistic about the long-term success of the six-month-old project known as “eVolve Panton.”
eVolve Panton kicked off on a sunny, late-August morning at Panton Town Hall press conference attended by GMP’s top brass, Panton selectboard members, Efficiency Vermont representatives and local legislators.
There, GMP CEO Mary Powell touted the partnership between the state’s largest utility and the town of Panton as a template for Vermont’s energy future. The partnership was created when town officials agreed to support GMP’s nearby 40-acre, 4.99-megawatt solar array, now producing power.
“We are going to be able to do in 12 months what would otherwise take about 20 years to accomplish,” Powell said. “We’ll deliver a lower carbon, a lower cost and a more sustainable future for Panton, and I believe become an incredible example not just for the rest of Vermont, but for the nation.”
In exchange for Panton’s array support, GMP agreed to help fund and design energy improvements to Panton Town Hall, town clerk’s office and town garage; install an electric car charging station and lighting at the park-and-ride lot across the road from town hall, work that has been done; partner with Efficiency Vermont to offer Panton home, farm and business owners energy audits and design work; and provide emergency backup power to town buildings from the solar array.
After August, Panton Selectboard Chairman Howard Hall said GMP stumbled out of the gate in delivering on its end of the bargain.
“It was a big rush for us to get this thing going and they pushed us pretty hard. And we accommodated them with a lot of things, and we just kind of felt like, ‘You kind of dropped the ball,’” Hall said.
GMP Chief Spokesperson Kristin Carlson doesn’t dispute things haven’t all gone smoothly: She described a learning curve for GMP.
“It’s exciting to do something completely new that hasn’t been done before. But when you do that, there’s a lot of learning that has to happen. And I remember when we talked with the town about this we knew it wasn’t going to be flawless,” Carlson said. “We’re excited to keep learning about things and moving quicker. We are committed to doing all these things in Panton.”
Carlson said GMP, which has assigned Senior Vice President Brian Otley to oversee the effort and meet regularly with the Panton selectboard, appreciates Panton’s willingness to be forthright with the company.
“The good thing we have found with Panton is they are all in, and they are really good about giving us feedback on what’s working and not working, and we need that,” Carlson said. “Because this is new. Our promise was never that we had this all figured out and that we were going to come in and do this. It was always a partnership, and a partnership in how do we figure this out.”
Hall agreed issues are being worked out.
“I think they see the point,” he said. “They don’t want to see us unhappy.”
Providing the battery-powered micro-grid that will supply emergency electricity to Panton’s town buildings will not be a problem, Carlson said.   
“We’ve done a few micro-grids,” she said. “That part I think is going to go really well.”
GMP engineer Josh Castonguay said he expects the company to file in March with the Public Service Board to amend its solar array Certificate of Public Good, an amendment that would allow GMP to build the micro-grid “in the calendar year.”
But the energy audits did not get off to a good start. Hall said there were issues with an initial contractor, although the effort appears to be going in the right direction.
“They’re actually going around and doing homes now. They’re actually scheduled to do my home for a blower-door test,” Hall said.
Carlson acknowledged the glitches, and said GMP has weekly meetings with Efficiency Vermont to make sure things are going well.
“One of the things, again, is learning what works, who are the good partners to do the work. So there has been some timing delay as we work through those kinks,” she said. “We are back on track. We have been trying to keep the town and the selectboard in the loop on some of those timing challenges.”
Carlson said as of late last week 76 of Panton’s homes — Hall could not say the exact number of homes but there are 315 taxable parcels in town — have either been visited or are scheduled for a visit by the teams now affiliated with GMP and Efficiency Vermont.
Of those, she said, 61 homeowners have either agreed to getting work done or a proposal for work written.  
“We’re going to see a lot of progress in the next few months, and it’s really going to put Panton on the forefront of this energy transformation,” she said.
Most of what remains to be resolved are the details of the work to Panton’s buildings and how much money each side will contribute.
Hall said one problem was that messages from GMP representatives at first were inconsistent.
“They had people that made promises, and their eyes were bigger than their stomach. They made a lot promises of what they wanted to do, and then they were like, ‘That’s going to cost a lot of money,’ and all of a sudden they started to walk some of this back,” he said.
Hall credited GMP for owning up to its mixed messages.
“We’ve pointed it out to them, and they go, ‘You’re right. We did say those things, and we’re on the hook for those things,’” Hall said.
Hall said GMP also took time to understand municipal funding: The selectboard cannot simply commit money to a project without consulting with voters.
“I can’t just arbitrarily and capriciously reach and grab $20,000 for this kind of stuff,” Hall said. “Being a little town of 668 people every dollar counts, and we have to make sure we spend every dollar correctly, and there is a legal procedure we have to follow. It took them some catch-up time to understand the process of municipal work, and I think they got it. They have to express how it’s going to work and how it’s going to happen.”
He got no argument from Carlson.
“Everything Howard is saying is dead on … I think it has been a learning process for us to work with the town,” she said. “And everything they have provided us as feedback we have taken to heart and adopted and tried to change and improve moving forward.”
Both GMP and the selectboard hope Town Meeting Day could move this final element forward.
Otley and Carlson plan to attend town meeting to answer questions and present building options to residents, and Carlson said an agreement could be reached as soon as a selectboard meeting later in March.
“It’s really up to them and the residents how they want to move forward on the town piece,” Carlson said, adding, “We’ll take their lead on what works and what they want to do.”
Hall called town meeting “a great opportunity for people to come out with questions and feedback.” He was also asked if he believed an agreement could be reached.
“I am confident in that. And I think we are probably 80 or 90 percent there,” he said.
Carlson said GMP still believes Panton will show the way forward for other communities.
“We knew going in that it was going to be a learning process,” she said. “Thankfully, we’ve had a partner like Panton that is willing to give us feedback and keep moving forward. And that’s the way this project is really going to work and become a model for the state.”

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