Letter to the editor: Solar deserves direct support

I’m involved in the Bristol Community Solar project, trying to enroll faith communities. Participation in BCS lets owners offset electric energy costs on their utility bills with net-metering credits. However, I am finding that faith communities are having a hard time deciding to make long-term investments in solar power. In fact right now, my church in South Burlington is the only one to have committed so far, with several still considering the investment.

We “sold” participation in the solar project at our church by emphasizing our obligation, as people of faith, to care for God’s Creation. In the present moment, this means addressing climate change by lowering our carbon footprint through the purchase of shares in the Bristol Project. A secondary consideration was the dollar benefit to the church over time. We called it a legacy project.

At the time of our greatest need, Vermont has drastically reduced solar incentives in the form of net metering “adders,” originally designed to shorten the “payback period” for solar investments, in the form of net metering credits on the church’s electric bill. Return of our investment will take more than twelve years at current electric rates. Several of our church members pointed this out and questioned the wisdom of investing church funds in the project.

In response, we asked congregants to contribute the $15,000 cost to the church directly so the funds would not come out of the church’s budget, and our church members responded magnificently. In this way, the “payback” to the church will begin immediately when the project goes on line. But not every faith community can do what we have done or would be willing to approach their members for this “ask.” And the same terms apply for individual investors as well.

I understand that the Public Utilities Commission and legislature plan to emphasize “Energy at Scale,” (see Senate Bill 119), because the cost/benefit ratio of large projects is more favorable to all ratepayers than that of small net-metered projects. I’m told that the net-metering incentive causes higher electric rates for all because the cost of the net-metering “adders” affects the amount our utilities pay for power. And, using this form of incentives does not enable targeting low and middle-income Vermonters for assistance. Therefore, only those who can afford to spend actually get to save — a different kind of inequity. So what to do?

Large projects, divorced from the community can cause NIMBY reactions in those communities. Local solar, controlled by local people can enable buy-in. And we need buy-in if we are ever to make real carbon-reduction progress. Direct incentives from the state, whether they are for solar generation, electric cars, or weatherization, are going to be necessary to tip the scales toward real carbon reductions. Many Vermonters, particularly low-income folks, won’t be able to participate at all without incentives.

So perhaps a better path than our current net-metered incentives is to change our way of encouraging solar projects. We should provide direct subsidies to dealer/installers to reduce the actual cost of solar panels, just as we do for electric cars right now. Low and middle-income Vermonters would be allowed to qualify for incentives on a sliding scale based on income. In the case of community solar projects, the incentives could still be accessed by those who, for any one of a number of reasons, cannot install PV on their homes.

If such a plan were enacted, both S.119 and direct subsidies would work side-by-side.

Climate change is affecting us now and the time to act is right now. The stimulus funds pouring into our state from Washington can enable Vermont to change the way we provide renewables incentives so all can benefit directly or indirectly, today.

Richard Butz


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