Vermont's Solar Industry Had A Strong Start. What's Next?

Apr 6, 2017

A new study says Vermont's already booming solar business has room to grow as the state works toward renewable energy goals.

The state is already trying to reach 90 percent renewable electricity by 2050, but that goal didn't come with a plan.

The Vermont Solar Market Pathways study was an effort sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy to look at how, exactly, solar energy fits into the state's future.

Scott Johnstone is the executive director of the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, which carried out the study.

He said the study sets a goal, then explores how that goal can be reached: “What does it take and is it possible to get to 20 percent of our electrical system being served by solar by the year 2025?”

Well, spoiler alert: VEIC says it is possible, since there's enough land and sunshine, but it'll only happen with some expansion of current efforts.

Some of it depends on power grid technology that doesn't even exist on the commercial market now, but at least part of the answer to meeting the state's energy goals actually has nothing to do with transmission or generation.

“To meet any of the goals previously mentioned, efficiency is really important,” said Damon Lane, a senior analyst at VEIC.

Comparing a control scenario, which is business as usual, to a model of a so-called "advanced solar" economy, Lane pointed out that in both versions of Vermont's future, people are using less energy because of better efficiency.

But he said even current energy efficiency efforts – some of which are funded with federal money that President Trump has proposed to eliminate – aren't enough to meet the state's goals.

“Our advanced solar scenario includes about $1 billion of additional efficiency by 2050, above and beyond what we're doing today,” Lane said.

And then there's the electric grid.

The grid was designed to move power from a few major providers to the many consumers around the state, but rooftop solar and other forms of distributed generation are changing the way the grid is used, and managing the flow of power is no small challenge.

"The grid itself, I think, is one of the most impressive engineering accomplishments in history. And this is going to be a lot harder." - Christine Hallquist, Vermont Electric Cooperative CEO

“To make this happen, this is going to be the greatest challenge — I'm going to say it's going to be one of the greatest challenges in human history,” said Vermont Electric Cooperative CEO Christine Hallquist. “I'm going to start by saying that the grid itself, I think, is one of the most impressive engineering accomplishments in history. And this is going to be a lot harder.”

Technology is moving things in the right direction.

Super-accurate weather forecasting can save on generation costs by allowing utilities to plan around the rise and fall of renewable energy production. And then there's the fact that like any new technology, solar is getting cheaper.

But at least one business owner who went to a discussion of the study in Burlington has some concerns about the premise that solar is cheap.

Daniel Kinney is the founding member of employee-owned Catamount Solar.

Kinney acknowledges that solar panels and equipment are getting cheaper all the time, but he doesn't want Vermonters to forget that the money they pay for solar installation also pays for the people installing it.

“I think it's important for the consumer to have a sense of who is working on the roof and who's going to stand by their product once it's on the roof,” he said.

Kinney said he thinks competition is a good thing, but not if some companies cut corners of safety and quality or the treatment of employees — and those things aren't free.

Disclosure 3:11 p.m. April 13, 2017 Catamount Solar provides underwriting support to VPR. This disclosure was not included with the original post because the news staff working on the post were unaware of the sponsorship.