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Net metering renewable energy costly, says retired grid engineer

By   /   February 12, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments


Photo by Michael Bielawski

Clockwise starting at the front left, Sens. Brian Campion, D-Bennington; Mark MacDonald, D-Orange; Christopher Bray, D-Addison; Diane Snelling, R-Chittenden; and John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans; are listening to Bob Amelang, a veteran electrical grid engineer.


MONTPELIER — The Senate Energy Committee  took testimony on a bill that seeks to improve the siting of energy projects and heard that net metering renewable energy is expensive.

On Wednesday, senators of the five-member committee discussed net metering and the grid impact of renewable energy. Bob Amelang, a retired electrical grid engineer, suggested slowing down the growth of renewable energy net metering because the projects are “costly and inefficient.”

Amelang, who had worked with Central Vermont Public Service and Green Mountain Power over his 26-year career, said the large and remotely located net metering solar projects between 150 and 500 kilowatts are the biggest culprits.

“These projects are often located quite a ways from the load they feed into,” he said. “There’s a project in Bennington that directs its power to the Northeast Kingdom for example. There is a lot of energy loss that results in that type of situation.”

He also said it’s going to be difficult to stop the momentum of net metering projects in Vermont. Since the net metering cap was raised from 4 percent to 15 percent in 2014, Vermont solar companies SunCommon, AllEarth Renewables, and Catamount Solar, have all kicked into high gear. The cap has largely been reached around the state, and generally is expected to be raised again when the cap expires in January 2017.

“We can’t just say, ‘All right, we’re just not going to allow any more net metering,’ because we have all these solar companies that have geared up and hired employees,” he said.

Amelang said solar is better utilized as rooftop only, which doesn’t require a new transformer or other additional infrastructure. Transformers adjust the voltage so that electricity can safely enter a home or building system, but they have a downside: they burn energy even when not being utilized.

“You are wasting energy that way,” he said. “One of the advantages of solar power is the fact that it saves infrastructure; it prevents a utility from having to build new poles, wires and transformers. Well you are adding poles, wires and transformers with these (other) projects.”

The solution, Amelang said, is to disallow new, large, and remote net metering projects. Doing so would account for more than half of the growth rate for all net metering projects.

Costs of rooftop net metering

Even smaller net metering projects may by costly. In September, Hardwick Electric Department board member Nat Smith told the Hardwick Gazette that, for a typical 6 kilowatt home, net metering costs the utility a net loss of about $830, which must then be passed onto ratepayers.

In another interview, HED manager Mike Sullivan explained the utility is legally obligated to provide power at about 7 or 8 cents per kilowatt-hour for every customer regardless if they are producing their own power with a net metering project. This means excess power from those panels is credited to the customers’ bill at about 20 cents per kilowatt-hour, so the end result is HED and its ratepayers pay around 27 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Local participation

Other discussions returned to the more urgent problem of towns having little or no say in energy siting. The purpose of S.230 is to give municipalities more leverage in the process.

Professor Ben Luce of Lyndon State College commented on one of the bill’s proposals: appointing public assistance officers to guide town officials through the process.

“What would really be needed for communities to participate effectively in the current process would be millions of dollars in legal assistance and expert witness assistance, and I don’t think that’s a practical reality,” Luce said. “I think it’s really pretty unfair to the citizenry to expect people to have to get involved understanding all that minutia, spending years getting involved in the process. It’s very unfriendly to citizenry to begin with.”

At a previous committee meeting, state Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, suggested putting energy projects through the Act 250 process. That would force new solar panels and windmills to adhere to requirements found in town plans regarding size, scope, noise and other impacts on a community.

Renewable energy projects in Vermont face few barriers in getting approval, which has led to conflicts with towns and a push for residents to have more input and even veto power on energy projects.

Contact Michael Bielawski at [email protected]


Michael Bielawski is a freelance reporter for Vermont Watchdog. A Seton Hall 2005 graduate, Bielawski has been writing articles for various publications in and around New York City; Seoul, South Korea; and Vermont. He’s a writer for the Hardwick Gazette, keeping track of rising school budgets and rural Vermont issues. He likes to write about energy and the environment, looking for angles not seen in mainstream media. At home, he’s busy looking after two little boys. During free time, he loves to watch Stanley Kubrick films on Netflix.