BRATTLEBORO – The Vermont House passed a comprehensive energy bill earlier this week, calling for a greater reliance on clean energy and a larger role for net-metering.
In a 132 to 4 vote, House members approved House Bill No. 56 after the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee took up the annual energy measure in early February. Portions of the original legislation were eliminated, such as the establishment of a Renewable Energy Investment (REI-Vermont) program for plants in the state to be owned and operated by the retail electric utilities if they produce greater than 2.2 megawatts.
But the committee kept the section that doubles the net-metering system, a generation facility for electricity, capacity from 250 kilowatts to 500 kW. Furthermore, it alters language to ensure a net-metering group can receive fees broken into individual bills as opposed to one large customer tab.
The legislation also sets a statute for solar net-metering systems of 5 kW or less while lifting the cap on smaller renewable projects. Advocates said if passed, the Vermont Public Service Board could extend possible funding for existing facilities, such as hydroelectric or biomass plants.
Sarah Edwards, a Progressive/Democrat from Brattleboro and member of the energy committee, said the most important thing about the bill is that it helps keep up the momentum in developing renewable energy.
“It’s going to expand the opportunities for small renewable energy projects by expanding net-metering. It’s going to raise the cap, which has been stagnant for a number of years, from 2 percent to 4 percent of a utility’s peak demand,” she said.
Fellow energy committee member, Vernon Republican Michael Hebert, was one of the four lawmakers to oppose the legislation.
He said there were good parts in the measure, but his concerns with cost-shifting and the lack of review on baseload sources prevented him from supporting it.
“The part that I didn’t like the most was the net-metering portion. I don’t mind when people put in alternative energy sources or renewable energy sources to get a credit if they generate more power than they are using. My problem is when they get a credit and the other ratepayers have to pay for that credit,” Hebert said. “I just couldn’t put more of that (cost) onto the ratepayers.”
More legislators would likely have joined Hebert in opposition if a controversial measure to enact a 55-cent charge on monthly electric bills was kept in the language.
The charge was initially set up to support the Clean Energy Development Fund (under which Entergy Vermont Yankee currently makes the sole payments on) and raise $2.4 million to support its continuing efforts. Amendments to alter the charge to exempt low-income Vermonters stalled on Tuesday, eventually leading to a tiff on the House floor.
Gov. Peter Shumlin removed the potential charge, but not before angering quite a few in Montpelier, including Burlington Republican Kurt Wright, who said Shumlin “totally disrespected” the work of the committees in the process.
Rep. Oliver Olsen, R-Jamaica, said it was unfortunate the governor chose to undermine the fragile compromise lawmakers reached on the measure.
“The governor has gutted the funding mechanism for the Clean Energy Development Fund, without offering any alternatives. His actions are irresponsible, and have endangered continued investment in Vermont’s renewable energy future,” Olsen said. “The most unfortunate consequence is that, once again, Windham County will lose out on critical incentives for renewable energy. Last year, Windham County only received $9,300 worth of solar tax credits from an available pool of $7.5 million from the Clean Energy Development Fund.”
By removing the 55 cent charge, Edwards said they will have to find another potential funding source for the energy fund.
“There are so many jobs that came out of the past several years with that fund, it really jump-started the industry,” she said. “I think we’re just going back to the drawing board on it. And we will have to come up with something … we thought long and hard about this and I’m personally open to a different strategy. I look forward to hearing what the governor’s plan is.”
Windham County Democrats hailed the legislation as a a critical step for enhancing Vermont’s energy future.
“The Clean Energy bill of 2011 advances the work we have done for several years to increase the amount of greener, renewable energy produced in Vermont and promote Vermont’s energy independence,” said Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham.
Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, said beyond the controversy surrounding the surcharge, it is important to remember the bill takes Vermont one step closer to energy independence.
This legislation aids in relying on renewable and sustainable energy sources instead of using imported oil for our home heating and gasoline, Deen said.
“It also means that with less energy produced from oil, we will be generating less carbon discharges lessening our carbon footprint,” he added. “Clearly, a forward-thinking piece of legislation that we should all support. Now it is off to the Senate for their action.”
Brattleboro Democrat Valerie Stuart called the measure bold step in a positive direction to protect the environment while also creating jobs for Vermonters.
The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration.
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