What comes first, our own self interests or the environment?
Helen Bruno, a member of the Energy Service Team at GMP, touts the Tesla Powerwall in a presentation in Brattleboro in 2016.

What comes first, our own self interests or the environment?

Either the electricity is too cheap, the Powerwalls are too expensive, or a private ownership/consumer approach is not the right way to build a state’s comprehensive energy plan

MARLBORO — I was one of the lucky 2,000 customers who was able to lease a Tesla Powerwall from Green Mountain Power.

For $15 a month per panel, paid over 10 years, I was given two panels that would switch on if the grid went down. These panels would also provide backup energy for Green Mountain Power (GMP) when necessary.

Valued by Tesla at almost $8,000 each, including installation, this $1,800 total investment seemed like a good deal from GMP, the first utility company in the country to offer a Tesla Powerwall program.

Signing up for the program seemed like a good way to support the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan, which set a goal of meeting 90 percent of Vermont's energy needs from renewable sources and increased efficiency by 2050.

We had already been helping with the Comprehensive Energy Plan by installing solar panels on our home three years ago. Tied in with the GMP grid, these panels let us sell solar power to GMP at a premium rate, which offsets our own electrical costs and generates a better return on solar investment.

Until we received the Powerwall, though, we had no direct access to our solar power. It went out to the grid, not to our home.

The Powerwall's smartphone app showed how many kilowatts of solar power was being generated and what was going to and from the grid through the device. It was amazing to watch the kilowatts shift and change as solar panels were covered with snow, as the days got shorter, or the weather was cloudy.

We saw a constant dance between solar panel energy, grid electricity, and battery energy. On the average, our grid usage dropped from 100 percent to just 10 to 20 percent on the sunniest of days.

We were thrilled that our household was practically self-sufficient in energy generation, and our contribution to the Comprehensive Energy Plan began seeming more achievable. This went beyond what we had expected.

I was singing the praises of GMP and the utility's forward thinking, showing my real time app results to all who would listen.

Until I couldn't.

* * *

Recently, my app went silent. I was locked out of my control over my battery usage. Suddenly, my battery was not being used at all.

Something was terribly wrong

I contacted Tesla. An agent checked and said a change had been made by GMP.

I contacted a member of the Energy Service Team at GMP, who explained that my Powerwall is just for backup when the grid goes down and an energy source for GMP - in other words, how the program was promoted and nothing else.

There had been a delay in GMP's restricting my battery usage, she explained, and that was why that month I had almost no grid usage as my panels and battery directly powered our home.

I responded that I understood the original program. However, since I had seen everything else that the Powerwall could do to help reduce our energy reliance on Canada for exported hydroelectric power from Hydro-Québec, it seemed that full Powerwall access for customers would offer the best option for GMP, too.

Enabling the 2,000 pilot households full access to their Tesla Powerwalls, I explained, would bring us that much closer to the Comprehensive Energy Plan goals, which Vermont was falling short on.

The GMP employee explained that energy contracts were negotiated in large quantities, from Hydro-Québec and other sources, on a schedule and that GMP already committed to purchasing the energy needed for the year.

That left no room for self-generating energy households in GMP's current grid-usage configurations.

In other words, having households generating their own energy would offset the pre-purchased energy balance, creating a surplus of energy for which GMP perhaps, would not be able to recoup costs.

“GMP paid for those Powerwalls,” the GMP employee reminded me, explaining that we were leasing them from GMP, not Tesla, and GMP, as the owner of the Powerwalls, had jurisdiction over how they were used. Plus this was a pilot program.

If I had purchased the Powerwalls myself, I could use them as I wished. But looking at my $380 annual electric bill, after selling solar energy to GMP, the return on investment for the full cost of an $8,000 Powerwall would be very long indeed.

I took off my conservation hat and put on my business one. Yes, it is true what I had signed up for was specifically what GMP presented on its website: “For $15/month for 10 years, or a one-time payment of $1,500, GMP and Tesla will install a Powerwall battery in your home. You'll have access to reliable backup power during grid outages. In exchange, all participating customers agree to allow GMP to share access with your Powerwall in order to reduce peak time energy costs.” And yes, GMP was offering this program on its own accord and is considered a leader in the energy sector because of it.

The GMP employee assured me that no grant or government funding offset the Powerwall investment by GMP; it was purely a remarkable private pilot program developed through Tesla. Both are private companies.

I have no remorse for signing up for the program or for getting what I leased - so there's no reason for me to stop participating. We love our Powerwalls.

But given the potential for our state's long-term environmental well-being - and promise I saw firsthand when I briefly had control over our devices - this arrangement felt shortsighted.

I can totally understand GMP's bind - where the company has an investment, it must set energy demands and costs, and this pilot program was created with certain benefits and intentions in mind.

We can do more. But who pays?

* * *

Soon thereafter, I heard GMP Chief Executive Officer Mary Powell talking on Vermont Public Radio last week about how the utility wants to move ahead more quickly with new energy programs and solutions, without long, tedious state regulation.

Ms. Powell was asking for the state to trust GMP's ability to collaborate with other renewable energy companies and to invest $85 million over three years.

“What collaboration looks like is acceleration of innovation, and acceleration of Vermonters adopting solutions that can help them dramatically reduce carbon, have more reliable power in their homes, and for it to be cost-effective,” she said.

The catch was that ratepayers could get billed later for these costs, at an unknown future rate.

* * *

As much as I want to see GMP succeed and continue on its path to becoming a renewable-energy leader, I am also concerned with the balance of energy efficiency, which actually reduces the energy load - and, therefore, income that GMP can generate - and the need for GMP to “keep the lights on” by keeping our grid up and functioning.

While my Tesla Powerwall can provide most of my energy and, perhaps, still have some left for GMP, the company is opting to limit access to that energy so I can maintain my current use and spending.

I was right where they were, too. I was reluctant to make my own investment into an energy solution that could not really pay for itself. My original solar panels had cost $20,000, but with a 30-percent federal tax rebate, other state incentives, and with earnings of $1,000 a year from energy sold to GMP, they will essentially pay for themselves in approximately 12 years.

Our two Powerwalls would save us only the $380 annual electric bill, and at that rate, they would pay for themselves in 40 years.

Either the electricity is too cheap, the Powerwalls are too expensive, or a private ownership/consumer approach is not the right way to build a state's comprehensive energy plan.

* * *

This experience makes me wonder how much we can really expect any private energy company or individual to invest in renewables.

Energy solutions from private utility companies put the brunt of the cost and work on them, with the ultimate outcome being a loss of revenue for the utility company as customers become more efficient and energy demands drop.

For private individuals, these solutions become an unrecouped investment as energy generation and storage become more expensive than the energy itself.

It seems we need a third party to help with a truly comprehensive plan - one where costs and returns are shared by all.

One such solution? A hybrid approach, supported by federal and state investment, private enterprise, tax breaks, subsidies, grants, and volunteerism with shared labor and resources by all.

The big-picture problem is one we all are grappling with: What comes first, our own self interests or the environment?

It seems, working alone - as an individual or a corporation - we really can't have both. Together, we need to commit to put the environment first.

And together, government, civil society, and private enterprise must creatively, collaboratively, and collectively work out ways to create balanced wins for all.

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