Solar arrays have sprouted across the Vermont landscape over the past decade, but policy makers weren't ready for one consequence of the solar boom: reaching the cap on new solar projects.
Last fall, Vermont’s largest utility, Green Mountain Power, hit the cap for how many mid-sized and larger solar projects it can hook up to the grid. That means many that were planned just won't get built this year.
At one farm in South Royalton, the limit has stymied the community’s plan for a shared solar array.
On this chilly afternoon it’s not a particularly convincing day to sell the site’s potential for solar panels. There’s a bleak fog blanketing the farmland and a smattering of cold rain. But Dan Kinney, a partner at Catamount Solar, assures me this slope at Putting Down Roots Farm, and Vermont in general, are perfectly well-suited for solar panels.
"There’s kind of a myth that Vermont doesn’t have enough sun to make solar viable. Well, that’s crazy," Kinney says. "The most solar in the world is in Germany. You don’t think of a lot of people going to Germany to get suntans."
Looking out over the southward-sloping hill face where the group of South Royalton residents wants to build a community solar array, Kinney points out where each panel would go. He says there would even be room to pasture sheep or chickens underneath the panels.
The Putting Down Roots Farm owns the land, and the young entrepreneur owners are excited at the prospect of benefiting from solar energy and hosting solar panels for other community members.
A local group of residents has already signed up to buy shares in the project, and the group has support from the Vermont Law School Energy Clinic.
But the project — like other solar projects hoped for this year — isn't going to happen in 2016.
That’s because last fall the state’s biggest utility, Green Mountain Power, reached its cap for accepting new solar projects into its net metering program. The company has petitioned the state to be able to accept some new projects anyway, but has had no response from lawmakers.
Part of the problem is that most of the solar projects that filled the cap were projects where the renewable energy credits generated were sold out of state, says Kevin Jones, deputy director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School.
"We’ve filled up the 15 percent cap largely with solar power that’s actually being sold into Massachusetts and Connecticut's renewable portfolios," Jones explains, "reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and taking up all the interconnection capacity for Vermont."
Advocates like Chris Wood agree. Wood works for the South Royalton nonprofit Building A Local Economy (BALE) and has led the effort on this proposed solar project. He says a big part of community solar is allowing people to invest in solar energy even if they can’t build it on their own property.
For example, Wood says the South Royalton Market would like to invest in renewable energy for environmental reasons and to make a dent in their $2,700-a-month electricity bill.
"They would like to take a chunk out of paying that huge bill, but obviously, they can’t put solar on their roof. They don’t have access," Wood explains. "So community solar will allow them to buy into solar without having to do it on their property."
Kinney from Catamount Solar says this plan in South Royalton isn’t the only project stalled by the net metering cap.
"If we didn’t have the cap, this job would be through permitting process, at least, and maybe underway," says Kinney. "I’ve got a handful jobs that are in the same limbo."
And other solar companies in Vermont are hitting the same wall. James Moore is a co-president of SunCommon, the largest residential solar installer in Vermont. He says when it comes to building community scale arrays, “we’re probably going to do less than half of what originally hoped to install this year."
"That’s problematic for Vermonters that want to participate in community solar," Moore says. "And it's certainly problematic for us as a business. We’re making significant and serious adjustments given that reality."
The Vermont Public Service Board is currently working on rewriting the net metering rules, the rules that govern how and at what rate utilities pay solar energy producers.
Kinney of Catamount Solar says his main message to the rule makers is to make the rules consistent.
"We have this joke in Vermont," says Kinney, "that we call it the 'Solar Coaster,' because it's constantly changing."
Moore from SunCommon agrees. He says without clear long-term policy, there’s no real incentive for property owners to make an investment if the conditions of payback are subject to change in upcoming months.
"When folks sign up for solar, they need to be able to count on program they signed up under not dramatically changing over life of solar system," Moore said.
The draft rules are still pending approval from the Legislature. Solar advocates across the state are holding their breath — and many of their projects — until the final rules come out.