Vermont Solar Systems Should Be for Vermont

By Norwood Long

A Valley News article on Sunday, December 27 said, “The Vermont Attorney General’s Office has issued a warning to certain solar companies, telling them to stop deceptive marketing practices and false claims that the energy they sell consumers is renewable.”

Are these companies installing coal burning solar panels? No, what they are doing is selling bragging rights called Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), a practice created and sanctioned by Vermont’s legislature and its public utility department. The purchaser, most often a power company elsewhere in New England, gets to claim that the output of a Vermont solar array counts against their mandated renewable energy goals, and Vermont doesn’t, even though the output of the array appears on the utility bills of Vermont customers.

The owner of the solar panels thus gets two income streams, one from the Vermont customers who buy the electricity, and one from the out-of-state customer who buys the bragging rights.
The result of these legal and regulatory shenanigans is that almost none of the 38 megawatts of solar installed in Vermont in 2014—including over 900 residential systems–counted toward Vermont’s mandated renewable energy goals. Allowing the builders to sell the RECs resulted in filling our hills with Connecticut’s solar panels and those of other New England states without any gains toward Vermont’s own goals, at a time when many communities are pushing back against the installation of solar panels.

To be fair, every panel installed reduces the need for electricity generated by burning coal and oil somewhere. But can we afford to fill our hills with solar panels that don’t help us meet our own targets? Those in the tourist industry would say not, and many otherwise energy conscious Vermonters are starting to wonder.

Policy makers, legislators, and electric companies claim that without selling the bragging rights our electric bills will increase, and that the ability to sell RECs has attracted solar installers from all over the country, driving down the costs of installing solar panels. Maybe. A recent U.S. Department of Energy survey found that in only 3 of the 21 states surveyed did solar systems cost more per watt than in Vermont, while in 17 states solar systems cost less.
And maybe Vermonters would rather pay a little more for electricity than fill our hills with Connecticut’s panels.

Sustainable Woodstock acts on the understanding that our climate is changing—our invasive plants, our vegetable gardens, our insect and bird populations, and our maple syrup industry are all showing the effects—and that coal and oil burning power plants are contributing to the change, and must be phased out. But we also believe that current and proposed new renewable energy goals are inconsistent and badly out of joint with Vermont’s decision to create and sell RECs.

Sustainable Woodstock plans a new Solarize campaign for the Spring of 2016, including a community solar option for those unable to put solar on their properties. Be sure: we will make sure that every system installed benefits Vermont, not some other state, and makes every attempt to preserve the beauty of our landscape.

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