Jock Gill: It’s time for Vermont to become a leader in community solar

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This commentary is from Jock Gill de Peacham, an Internet communications consultant who served in President Bill Clinton’s media affairs office. He is the energy coordinator of the town of Peacham.

In Peacham, the energy committee is pushing for a first 150 kW community solar project. The electricity produced will help reduce the energy load on the Peacham municipal office building, fire department and town garage.

This will benefit all residents of Peacham, regardless of their electricity supplier (Washington Electric Cooperative at 62% and Green Mountain Power at 38%). We also hope to be able to provide electricity to essential nonprofits in the city, as well as residents who are overloaded with energy. Equity is a fundamental issue for us.

We have an excellent site donated to the project by a deeply rooted family in Peacham. It’s out of anyone’s line of sight, a deer pond or wetland, and it’s handy for Green Mountain power lines. Recently, we were able to present the site and our story in person to Lieutenant Governor Molly Gray when she was in Peacham.

One of the problems is that the state does not have an office that sends support staff to local communities to help them achieve community solar in the best possible way. Quite the contrary.

The Utilities Commission and the Natural Resources Agency appear hostile to community solar. They raise objections and obstructions. So much so that they have driven almost every community solar power business opportunity out of Vermont.

We need to change that. It’s time to dramatically speed up the installation of renewable energy and distributed storage systems of all types. All communities in Vermont would benefit.

At one point, Vermont was listed as a state that had passed legislation supporting community solar power. Recent changes in the regulatory environment appear to have made Vermont much less supportive of community solar. Vermont should be a leader, not a laggard. Does Vermont really want, as it does now, leave 70% of its people unable to benefit from clean, low-cost solar energy? This is hardly the way to meet the state’s ambitious climate action goals.

To actively develop community solar power in Vermont, can Vermont’s more than 120 energy committees be energized to demand equitable access to solar power and in the future all electric for all Vermonters? This, given recent climate news, is perhaps even more critical than creating broadband access.

We must enable communities to develop resilient energy security infrastructure, create well-paying jobs, and have some power and control over their local energy arrangements. To this end, we must also embrace Pay while saving programs statewide.

I hope you will support this effort to bring this vital effort to the attention of all of Vermont’s more than 120 energy committees. Achieving community solar benefits for all will require concerted popular power. Energy committees are the natural focal points for this essential people-powered effort.

About the status of community solar:

Market Status

In December 2020:

  • Community solar projects are located in 39 states plus Washington, DC
  • 22 states, plus Washington, DC, have policies that support community solar power.
  • Community solar projects represent 3,005 megawatts of alternating current (MW-AC) of the total installed capacity.
  • About 74% of the total market is concentrated in the four main states: Minnesota (663 MW-AC), Florida (593 MW-AC), Massachusetts (555 MW-AC) and New York (410 MW-AC).

NREL Sharing the sun: understanding community solar deployment and subscriptions presents data and analysis from a first round of data collection for a three-year project studying the community solar market in the United States.

Advantages

Based on the design details, community solar projects can benefit customers, utilities and third parties by providing:

  • Greater stability in electricity rates and potential bill savings for program participants.
  • Wider solar accessibility for different categories of electricity customers, especially if portions of projects are reserved for low-income customers.
  • Grid benefits from the implementation of projects in specific locations.
  • Compliance with renewable energy portfolio standards through an increase in renewable energy generated from community solar projects (to do this, utilities must retain ownership of the renewable energy credits, which represent the environmental components of this energy production).
  • The ability for utilities to recover a greater portion of program costs from participating clients rather than non-participating taxpayers, compared to other incentive programs. This recovery will depend on the tariff structure chosen.


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