Solar saga at Thetford Elementary

It appears that the solar expansion at Thetford Elementary will likely proceed, although its excess electricity will be eligible for just the current net metering rate.

Solar saga at Thetford Elementary
The current 120 kW solar array on Thettord Hill

In spring of 2022, Norwich Technologies, a solar energy company doing business under TES Solar, LLC, applied to the state to expand the solar array owned by Thetford Elementary School (TES) by a lot. The proposal was to quadruple the size of the array on Thetford Hill by adding 375 kW of capacity to an existing 120 kW array. Furthermore, TES Solar requested that any excess electricity from the new panels be sold to the Vermont utility Green Mountain Power at the price (or net metering rate) given to the original array in 2014. Historically, net-metering was intended as an incentive for solar development. It is revised (downwards) every two years as more solar is built. The net metering rate is now significantly lower than in 2014.

Because private solar panels do not belong to Green Mountain Power, the company cannot fold net-metering payments into its capital expenses. Therefore, net-metering costs are passed on to all customers in the form of increased electric rates.

Up until then, it was customary for the Public Utility Commission (PUC), the body that grants permissions for solar facilities, to deem that an expansion to an existing solar array was eligible for the original net metering rate. However the size of the TES expansion — and the associated net-metering increase — was “a significant issue” under statute 30 V.S.A. § 248(b)(4) that requires solar facilities to “result in an economic benefit to the state and its residents.”  Therefore, in July 2022, the PUC ruled that the economic benefit criterion should be considered in these permit proceedings. In August 2022, an outside utility, Vermont Electric Cooperative (VEC), filed to intervene in the TES case. Their claim was “that a decision in this case will be precedential in a pending case involving a VEC customer in VEC’s service territory …”

TES Solar petitioned to oppose VEC’s intervention. A day later, the Thetford Joint Energy Committee (JTEC) that works on both school and town energy concerns also filed to intervene in the case, saying that, “The outcome of this case directly impacts the ability of the Town of Thetford to meet its energy goals as outlined in the Town Plan. … No other party has the same knowledge (about expanding its existing net-metered solar array) and direct experience with energy planning for the Town of Thetford.” Their petition was granted.

The PUC also granted VEC’s petition to intervene.

In early October, VEC filed to modify their initial petition, asking that the PUC apply the net metering rates that were set by the last biennial net metering update to the proposed 2022 TES Project. “If the PUC agrees … VEC would not oppose the Project, and has no need to participate in the remainder of the PUC case.”

A week later TES Solar shot back six pages of legal arguments, including “VEC has … the opportunity to address the issue in a case arising in its own franchise service territory” and urged the PUC to deny the modification. To counter this, VEC brought fifteen pages of legal arguments, ending in the summary statement …”the 2022 (TES) Project is not entitled to 2014 rates that the legislature established in a now-repealed statute and outdated net-metering program.”

The representative of JTEC, Nolan Riegler of Thetford, gave testimony on October 28, 2022. He made many points, including plans for an income-eligible program allowing low-income residents to benefit from excess electricity produced by the solar expansion. Regarding TES Solar being “grandfathered in” to the higher 2014 net-metering rate, he asserted “the alleged cost to Green Mountain Power … is no more than a rounding error that will not have a rate impact or impose unjust cost on other Green Mountain Power customers. “

In February 2023, the PUC held an evidentiary hearing on the case by videoconference. The parties at the hearing were TES Solar, JTEC, VEC, Vermont Natural Resources Board, Green Mountain Power, Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, and Vermont Department of Public Service.

Following the hearing, in March of 2023, TES Solar presented “a bona fide offer to settle this proceeding consistent with all parties’ interests” and a request for  “additional time for the parties to consider the offer and resolve this case without need for briefs and reply briefs.” TES Solar also requested “a 21-day extension of the date for filing initial briefs and proposed findings of fact.”

VEC responded with a two-page legal argument including “The Petitioner’s very late settlement offer, which the Petitioner could have offered when VEC objected to the Petitioner’s proposed rates about six months ago, is not a good cause basis to now extend the briefing schedule.”

At the close of the evidentiary hearing on February 21, 2023, PUC Chairman Roisman had stated, “This evidentiary hearing is concluded, and the record is closed.”

It appears that the solar expansion at Thetford Elementary will likely proceed, although its excess electricity will be eligible for just the current net metering rate.

Photo credit: Li Shen

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