In 2021 the Thetford Elementary School (TES) proposed to expand its array of solar panels to bring their generating capacity to 495 kW, a four-fold increase in electricity production. The state requires such expansions to be approved by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) that regulates electrical and natural gas installations and governs their financial management. When the school originally built the array in 2014, the PUC had granted TES a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) for its then generation capacity of 120 kW. In order to expand, TES filed a petition to the PUC in 2021 to amend the original Certificate to 495 kW.
The PUC balked at amending the CPG because it gives TES a very favorable rate for selling its excess electricity to the power company, Green Mountain Power — the so-called net metering credit. The net metering credit of today is substantially lower than it was when TES first obtained its CPG in 2014. Green Mountain Power is not allowed by law to absorb the cost of net-metering into their budget because these panels are privately owned. Instead, the net-metering cost is passed on to all GMP’s customers as an increase in their electric rate.
Up until the TES case, small expansions to solar arrays have been allowed as amendments to their CPGs and received the original net-metering rate. However in November of 2022 the PUC put a hold on the case of the TES solar expansion because the large size of the expansion was a departure from past precedent. The PUC’s concern is that net-metering costs are driving up electricity prices in Vermont. Four other cases seeking amendments to CPGs for added solar capacity were also put on hold. Since the TES case came to the PUC first, it will be the precedent-setter for the other four. That leaves all of them in limbo while the PUC debates what to do. Ten months later no decision has been issued.
Recently, two of those delayed cases have filed memos of protest with the PUC. The first was filed on September 6th, 2023, by a private homeowner in New Haven, VT, who installed a 14.4 kW solar array in 2013 to power their home. Their excess power was divided between their office building and a family member. After purchasing an electric car and a hybrid minivan, they hired a contractor to add another 7.7 kW of generating power, a 50% increase. “We jumped through a lot of hoops, and then the PUC decided to group our tiny project with the much larger Petition of TES Solar….”
Both their solar contractor, SunCommon, and Green Mountain Power sent letters to the PUC asking that this case be allowed to move forward. “Nevertheless, the PUC denied the request to lift the stay until resolution of the TES solar case, apparently due to some regulatory in-fighting over the rate to be paid to net-metering projects. ….Unless the PUC acts promptly in lifting the stay and approves our project this fall, it will not be possible for our project to be installed this year. This means another winter of paying electric bills on top of the solar loan we took out to fund the project, believing we would receive a permit in a reasonable amount of time, not more than a year after we filed. … Frankly, we don’t care about whether we get 2 cents or 6 cents or no cents more from our renewable energy project. All we want is for it to be up and running before the winter.”
The second memo was filed by Sleepy Hollow Ski & Bike LLC in Huntington, VT
“Sleepy Hollow Inn Ski & Bike LLC is a small operation offering Nordic skiing, weddings and mountain biking. We operate on a thin profit margin. Snow making, in particular, requires a huge amount of electricity. This solar project is critical to our business, and the delay in approval is costing us money and increased stress… We have worked to decrease our carbon footprint and move toward a more sustainable business operation. This has included installing heat pumps to replace our oil furnace, installing 2 EV charging stations in our parking lot for our customers, replacing our propane backup generator with battery backup, installing solar to cover 75% of our electricity bill (approval of this project would get us close to 100%).
“… Our large snow grooming machine is 20 years old and rather than ordering another very expensive diesel-powered machine …. we have ordered an all-electric machine that is substantially more expensive. Our goal is to again use the additional solar panels to furnish the electricity for this major expense.
The case has not been resolved more than a year after we applied for our amended CPG for a 65.57 kW solar project on 9/7/22 ……We will be paying up to $5000 more in electricity this winter than we would have if this project was completed as it should have been last fall ….. Why is our small business paying such a significant financial penalty for simply applying for a CPG that is our right under the law?”
It seems that the PUC could have predicted that these types of situations would arise as Vermont comes to rely more and more on solar. The Commission could make a distinction between “minimal expansions” that could be grandfathered under their original net-metering rate and major expansions that would require a new CPG (and get the current, lower net-metering rate). As the frustrated New Haven homeowner put it, “The State of Vermont and the Legislature have made it clear that Vermont’s energy future relies on renewable energy. Yet the PUC seems to be putting up every obstacle to encouraging renewable energy projects.”