MONTPELIER – Mateo Kehler, who owns Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, would love to install a solar array at his dairy and cheese-making operation, which would add to the “green” brand of his product and could save money on electricity costs in the long term.
But Kehler said he has run into limits in a state renewable energy program called net metering, which may put that goal out of reach.
Net metering allows residents and businesses with energy installations like solar panels and wind turbines to hook up to the electric grid. Excess power can be sold back to utilities.
State law, however, allows utilities to have no more than 2 percent of their electricity come from net-metered projects. “We’re bumping up against the 2 percent cap, and it doesn’t seem to work financially without being able to net meter,” Kehler said during a Statehouse press conference.
Now some lawmakers want to make sure they’re not standing in the way of Vermont businesses and residents like Kehler, who hope to take advantage of the program that advocates say has helped foster more than 1,000 renewable energy projects around Vermont since it was created in 1998.
One part of a broad renewable-energy bill sponsored by two members of the House Committee on Energy and Natural Resources proposes getting rid of the 2 percent cap and also would expand the size of the projects allowed under net metering from 250 kilowatts to 500 kilowatts.
Rep. Tony Klein, an East Montpelier Democrat who chairs the committee and co-sponsored the bill, said that with some utilities close to the 2 percent mark, keeping the cap would essentially end the growth of the net-metering program.
“It’s a very successful program,” Klein said. “It’s good for businesses, residents; it’s good for our grid; it’s good for our farmers; it’s good for our environment. I mean, why do we want to stop something that’s good?”
The net-metering element of the energy bill, however, does have its skeptics.
Bill Driscoll, vice president of the Associated Industries of Vermont, said there are costs associated with maintaining the electric grid that are built into electric rates.
People who install renewable projects at their homes or businesses take themselves out of the pool of customers paying those costs, he said, while still benefiting from being connected to the grid.
Driscoll said those costs get shifted to other ratepayers, which is of concern for the energy-intensive manufacturing sector he represents.
“The more net-metering projects you have, and the bigger they are, the more those costs are concentrated on everybody else,” Driscoll said.
Driscoll said the cost shift, as well as questions about the reliability of the electric system, are two reasons the limits were put into place.
Klein down-played the significance of the former.
“That’s extremely arguable and if there is (a cost shift) it’s minute and could easily … be covered by a connection charge for a net-metering project,” Klein said.
Klein said he would be happy to include a connection charge for net-metering projects if his committee can determine there is a cost shift and it can be quantified, but that hasn’t been done yet.
Leigh Seddon, president of Alteris Renewables, said net metering is crucial.
“Net-metering legislation is the most important policy tool that Vermont or any state has to encourage customer-owned generation,” Seddon said.
Renewable Energy Vermont, a trade association for the renewable-energy industry, said that since 1998 net metering has led to nearly 1,300 solar, wind and methane digester systems across the state. Methane digesters use cow manure to produce electricity and have been installed at some Vermont dairy farms.
Despite the success of the program, less than 1 percent of the state’s electric use comes from net-metered projects, said David Blittersdorf, the owner of AllEarth Renewables, a Vermont company that designs, manufactures and installs wind and solar systems.
“It’s not a lot,” Blittersdorf said.
Klein said the goal is to expand that amount.
One of the other key parts of the energy bill attempts to find a way to pay for the clean-energy development fund, which is used to create renewable energy projects. The fund is now supported by the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant that’s scheduled to go offline in March 2012.
The bill proposes using a $1.50 monthly charge on customers’ bills.
The measure has “caused a lot of heartburn” Klein said, but “I’m not ready to yank it out of the bill yet.”
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