By Michael Bielawski and Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog
MONTPELIER – New siting rules from the Public Service Board – as well as new grid concerns – are dominating the discussion as the Senate Energy Committee prepares for another week of expert testimony.
Representatives of Sierra Club Vermont, Vermonters for a Clean Environment, and Energize Vermont were set to give testimony this week even as senators try to understand important information from the last few days.
Last Friday, Margaret Cheney, one of three members of the much-maligned Public Service Board, discussed draft net metering rules written to appease critics of the board’s siting policies.
“We intend to make the process clearer and easier for municipalities and citizens alike,” she said.
Net metering allows consumers to connect their own solar arrays to a public utility power grid. Whenever unused power gets transferred to the grid for use by others, owners of solar installations gain a reduction on their own energy bill. The net metering changes proposed by the PSB apply to systems up to 500 kilowatts.
During testimony, Cheney suggested using price incentives and disincentives to encourage solar siting that respects municipalities. Preferred locations include gravel pits, quarries, sites next to the primary user or sites designated by the town.
In Vermont, utilities pay about 20 cents per kilowatt-hour for power generated by net metering projects – high above the market price of about 5 cents per kilowatt-hour. State Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, said the system is expensive.
“The (Vermont Electric) Co-op figures it is $125,000 for every 1 percent of net metering, and that’s spread out against the rest of the consumers,” he said. “That’s why I say we’ve got to get the price point right. We can’t continue to do it at this price.”
According to the proposed rule changes, net metering system owners would be penalized if projects aren’t sited favorably. They can be further penalized if their renewable energy credits, or RECs, are sold out of state.
As Vermont generates more green energy, lawmakers have to figure out how it will be transmitted.
Asa Hopkins, director of energy policy and planning for the Public Service Department, said big changes to the grid will be necessary if Vermont is to be 90 percent renewable by 2050, assuming all electricity comes from solar energy.
“The grid that you would have to build to be able to use that much solar and export it out of the state when it’s sunny, it would have to be able to hold something like five, or maybe eight, times as much power,” he said. “Imagine the level of upgrades that would be required in the transmission and distribution system, and the incredible costs with that.”
Hopkins told Watchdog in a later exchange that Vermont’s 2015 Comprehensive Energy Plan does not foresee attaining the 90 percent renewable goal using solar alone. He also said storing energy is not possible with current battery technology.
The proposed changes to Vermont’s energy system come as towns are pushing back against poorly sited solar and wind plants.
Last week, the PSB made a nearly unprecedented move to reject a 2-megawatt solar project planned for Bennington. The board has been criticized for rubber-stamping solar and wind projects proposed by developers.
Rodgers said he believed public pressure led to the PSB’s denial of a certificate of public good.
State Sen. Christopher Bray, the Democratic chair of the Energy Committee, said rare denials by the PSB should not be interpreted as ignoring the public. Nevertheless, he acknowledged negative public perceptions of the board.
“I have a sense from conversations with lots of folks that there’s a perception that unless a CPG is denied, the town has not been heard,” Bray said.
Cheney said many projects reviewed by the PSB, including projects as large as 500 kilowatts, receive little public comment.
Rodgers said while he hopes board members are respecting the wishes of towns, more needs to be done.
“I’m certainly not going to just take their word for it. They recently denied the one down in Bennington, but it’s the first real sign of them respecting town plans in my mind.”
Rodgers welcomed the boards new siting guidelines.
“The PSB needs to come out with some sort of direction for towns to follow, because in some rulings they’ve said ‘your plan wasn’t prescriptive enough’ and in other ones they’ve said ‘your plans are too prescriptive.’ So, they basically threw them aside. But this one (in Bennington) somehow hit the sweet spot. ”
Early in the session, Rodgers sponsored a bill to subject energy developers to Act 250, Vermont’s strict land use law. He said he wants criteria from Act 250 put into Section 248, the energy siting statute, to make it a more citizen-friendly system.
CLARIFICATION: This story was updated at 4:53 p.m., Feb. 25 to clarify the statement by Asa Hopkins. The claim that the grid update would need to hold up to eight times more power assumes a scenario in which Vermont achieves its renewable goals using solar energy alone.
Contact Michael Bielawski at [email protected]