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Connecting to the sun

Training for community and municipal solar projects creates buzz

For a copy of the International City/County Management Association presentation, write Cullen Meves at cmeves@windhamregional.org or call 802-257-4547, ext. 108.

On a blustery, sunny day, town officials, energy contractors, regional commissioners, and all around solar geeks gathered at Stratton Mountain Ski Resort to discuss installing photovoltaic systems.

Members of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) offered a free training in expanding and installing solar projects to about 60 participants on Sept. 6.

According to Jayson Uppal, consultant at Meister Consultants Group, which specializes in renewable energy policy and public sector sustainability strategies, Vermont has great solar policies compared to most states — and in some ways is on par with Europe.

Jim Kennerly, policy analyst with the North Carolina Solar Center’s energy policy team, agreed, saying, “You guys have an amazing array [of options for solar]” in Vermont, then added that policy in many ways drives these markets.

Solar arrays can provide many benefits to municipalities, he said. A town might install an array to reduce its own electricity bills, but can also sell excess power, or credits, depending on state statute or agreements with utility providers, to another consumer.

Kennerly said the state’s SPEED program (Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development) and net metering laws are important in expanding solar in the state.

The Vermont Legislature enacted the SPEED program in 2005. The program’s goal is to help the state transition to more renewable energy sources by promoting in-state renewable energy projects.

A measurable goal of the program is to have 20 percent of total statewide electric retail sales starting in 2017 sourced from new renewables. The state aims to have 75 percent of the electrical sales come from renewable energy by 2032.

Net metering allows for the purchase of electricity by utility companies from residential and consumer solar projects.

Multiple projects in Windham County have taken advantage of net metering because it also allows individuals to buy shares in a project and then receive a credit on their home electricity bill.

The state allows projects up to 500 kilowatts to participate in net metering, said Kennerly, which he characterized as often as much as a municipality needs. “It’s about the size of an Ikea [store],” he said.

(According to its website, the Ikea in New Haven, Conn., is 306,000 square feet, and, as it happens, has its own photovoltaic system on the roof: an 118,000-square-foot array consisting of a 940.8-kW system, built with approximately 3,920 panels.)

Solar projects of 10 to 150kW qualify for a streamlined permitting process with the Public Service Board, said co-presenters. With projects of less than 10kW, the individual sends a letter to the PSB and the utility company has 10 days to object to the project which reportedly rarely happens.

Utility companies do have caps — 4 percent for each utility — on how much of their power comes from solar, said the presenters.

Some of Vermont’s smaller companies in the northern part of the state have reached their caps. Green Mountain Power, which serves all of Windham County, is still below the cap.

Participants also discussed successes and frustrations with launching solar projects.

One man in the audience said that it took him nine months to learn from the utility company whether it would allow him to “interconnect” his project into the grid. The company charged him $30,000 just to tell him if the project could connect.

Vermont’s policies on interconnection are not very good, said the co-presenters.

Participants also discussed issues with local zoning and permitting, how local ordinances meshed with the state-level control of energy projects, and financing methods.

Audience members discussed cost, lack of education on the part of municipalities or the public, reliability of financial incentives, political interests, and disposal of panels.

Power storage for solar energy, though increasing, still poses an issue, said Uppal. Panel technology has advanced, however, so that when one portion of the panel is shaded, the rest of the panel still produces power.

That’s a technological improvement that benefits leafy and snowy places such as Vermont.

But cost remains an important barrier to increasing the amount of solar installations in the United States, said Uppal.

“We’re not competing on a level playing field,” he said.

Solar projects in the United States cost about twice as much as projects in Germany. While hardware costs between the two countries are similar, “soft costs” such as permitting cost more here.

Projects in the States also take longer to implement and build compared to their German counterparts, said Uppal. Germany averages one week, compared to about a year in most U.S. states.

This longer timeline also drives up costs and drives down people’s motivation, presenters said.

According to Uppal, although oil and gas have received government subsidies since the early 1900s, similar financial support of renewables has been “sporadic,” slowing the rate of adoption.

The Sept. 6 conference has spurred more interest and networking, said Cullen Meves, a planner with the Windham Regional Commission.

The WRC helped organize the event because implementing more solar projects meets many of its proposed goals set forth by the commission’s energy committee, she said.

Goals include decreasing reliance on energy sources transported across long distances, keeping energy generation in the community, more renewable energy sources, increasing energy self reliance, and increasing locally generated power.

Washington, D.C.-based ICMA says on its website, icma.org, that its mission is to create excellence in local governance by developing and fostering professional management to build better communities.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #221 (Wednesday, September 18, 2013).

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