VERGENNES – Vermont’s renewable energy policy once again took center stage at the season’s final legislative breakfast, held on Monday at St. Peter’s Parrish Hall in Vergennes.
Participants debated the pros and cons of the latest solar siting legislation (S.230) and suggested other renewable energy strategies to help the state wean itself off of fossil fuels.
Bill S.230, endorsed by the Vermont Senate on March 31 by a 22-3 tally, encourages communities to develop energy sections in their town plans that map out their solar siting priorities, along with specific locations within their borders where renewable energy projects could be sited. Those municipal energy plans would ultimately have to pass muster with the Vermont Department of Public Service and be deemed compatible with the state’s green energy priorities.
As it stands, the Vermont Public Service Board – a quasi-judicial panel – gives local town plans “due consideration” when evaluating renewable energy project applications, according to Bray. Under S.230, the PSB would give “substantial deference” to towns’ certified energy plans that dovetail with the state’s renewable energy objectives.
Bill S.230 is now being discussed by the House Natural Resources & Energy Committee, of which Rep. Warren Van Wyck, R-Ferrisburgh, is a member. Van Wyck was candid on Monday in his criticism of the bill and of a Vermont renewable energy policy that he said is rewarding out-of-state purchasers of Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) at the expense of rural Vermont communities that are hosting large solar arrays.
Van Wyck said he is concerned that a lot of the RECs coming out of solar farms in Vermont are being sold to industries in Massachusetts and Connecticut, to satisfy their respective state’s green energy portfolio requirements.
“There’s a grand misconception going on around here,” Van Wyck said. “When you drive around Addison County and see all these solar arrays, wind turbines and biomass projects – (the power) is being generated here, but the legal right to use it in Massachusetts and Connecticut. So we cannot say that is clean energy for Vermont. It’s clean energy for Massachusetts and Connecticut.”
Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, countered that while an out-of-state entity can receive credit for RECs purchased from Vermont-based projects, the actual green energy created by the arrays, turbine and/or hydro dams is sent into Vermont’s electricity grid and used by Vermonters.
“It is consumed locally,” Bray said.
He added the renewable energy Vermont produces on its own is energy – some of it nuclear or made with fossil fuels – that Vermont does not have to import from Southern New England.
“Every time you run an array in Vermont, you turn down a fossil fuel generating plant in Connecticut,” Bray said.
He noted a new net-metering law will take effect in Vermont on Jan. 1, 2017. That law, among other things, assigns greater value to RECs held in Vermont compared to those sold out of state.
“We are making adjustments and I’m proud of what we have done,” Bray said. “We are making progress.”
Van Wyck also questioned the fairness of Vermont’s net-metering program, through which the owner/operators of renewable energy projects are paid a premium for the electricity they manufacture and send back into the state’s grid.
“Net metering causes a tremendous cost shift to other rate payers that do not have a net-metering capacity,” Van Wyck said. “In a way, it’s somewhat like a state-sponsored Ponzi scheme. How many people can you possibly give 19 cents or 20 cents a kilowatt hour to? It’s not going to last.”
Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, said most of those who invest in net-metering projects are not doing so to make money. He cited the example of his own home, recently equipped with 18 roof-mounted solar panels. Sharpe said he is using the premium price he receives for the excess energy generated by the panels to pay for his solar equipment investment.
Sharpe said there appears to be a “divide” within the business community on the issue of investing in energy.
“There are a group of businesses that look at short-term return for their stockholders, and they want to make sure they continue to make profits and don’t care what the damage is to the environment or what other people might pay (for energy),” Sharpe said. “There are also responsible businesses … that see the bigger picture. They are supportive of renewable energy and look at what the effects will be for our children and grandchildren.”
Natural gas and not renewables should be credited for lowering electricity prices in New England in recent years, according to Van Wyck.
“There are diminishing returns on solar,” Van Wyck said. “Vermont has to look out for its economic base.”
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, suggested that Vermont purchase more hydroelectricity from Quebec. He also argued that Vermont should make “cow power” a bigger part in its renewable energy strategy. Several farms in Addison County have invested in bio-digesters that extract the methane from cow manure and convert it into renewable energy. The process also separates the liquid from the manure solids, which can be recycled as animal bedding. And the process also helps reduce phosphorous in cow manure from getting into the state’s waterways.
“We have a long track record with (cow power),” Smith said.
The Bridport Grange, Addison County Farm Bureau and Addison County Chamber of Commerce will sponsor a final forum on June 6 to wrap up the 2016 legislative session. That event will begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Bridport Grange Hall.