Vermont’s aggressive energy policy

As a solar community organizer, I spend a lot of time talking to people about renewable energy. The question I get most frequently is, “Why is there so much wind and solar energy in Vermont?” Folks from out of state, or those who spend time in other places, are surprised by the number of wind projects on our mountains and solar installations on our homes and businesses. While our sensibilities tell us we are just a state full of green-minded people (as evidenced by the number of Toyota Priuses and Chevy Bolts on our roads), the reality is that Vermont benefits from a strategic blend of savvy energy policy and economic foresight. Simply put, implementing aggressive renewable-energy policy is good for our state on a number of levels, and our legislature has embraced the possibilities that renewable energy can provide.

Vermont sees on average over 100 million megawatt hours of free solar energy every day, which is complemented by higher than average wind speeds during the winter months. These factors, combined with a comprehensive plan focused on realizing Vermont’s economic, environmental and health goals, create an incredible opportunity for our state to be on the leading edge of the clean energy revolution.

Vermont’s “2016 Comprehensive Energy Plan” is a 469-page strategy to decrease our state’s greenhouse gas levels, improve our economy and limit our reliance on fossil fuels. A multifaceted document covering every sector of energy (including heating, transportation, electricity and weatherization), the CEP expands the statutory goal of 25 percent of our state’s energy to come from renewable resources by 2025 to include reductions of total energy consumption, a goal of 90 percent of our state’s energy needs met by renewables in 2050, and a breakout of end-use sector goals by 2025 (I encourage everyone to at least take a glance of the 14-page Executive Summary found on the Department of Public Service website publicservice.vermont.gov.).

While these goals are great for reducing GHG levels, they are even better for Vermont’s economy. Every year $1.7 billion dollars leave our state to purchase petroleum products for heating and transportation. Locally produced renewable energy means most of those dollars would stay here, creating new jobs and as much as $2,000 annually per household in energy savings. In addition, renewable energy reduces pollutants, leading to better public health. When that energy is locally produced, it is more efficient, in part because electricity generated by micro-production centers such as residential and commercial solar arrays goes to the first available need, which in most cases will be the generator or a close neighbor. Clean energy is also a fast-growing industry and a job creator in Vermont, with about 18,000 Vermonters employed in the sector.

 Local utility plays a huge role in advancing state’s goals

I often liken the Clean Energy Revolution to the Industrial Revolution. The potential for economic growth, job creation, advances in technology and infrastructure and quality of life for humanity cannot be understated as renewables become more commonplace in the United States and the world. Vermont is fortunate to have a progressive utility—Green Mountain Power—leading the charge here. GMP’s CEO Mary Powell has embraced the potential for renewables. Powell said that GMP energy innovation projects are part of a statewide initiative to reduce fossil fuel usage and greenhouse gas emission through Act 56, passed by the Vermont Legislature in 2015.

“Vermont’s carbon reduction targets are aggressive,” Powell allowed. “But GMP’s goals are as well. By the end of 2032, GMP’s Energy Innovation efforts, including our partnerships with Vermont businesses, will result in an offset of almost 200,000 metric tons of carbon per year, which is the equivalent of removing almost 39,000 cars from the road.”

   GMP is working to help everyone take part in the clean energy revolution by providing reduced priced energy to low-income households through shares in community solar arrays hosted by GMP. Vermonters at 200 percent of the federal poverty level can receive a seven-percent savings on their energy costs in addition to the 25-percent discount offered through GMP’s low-income energy assistance program.

Charlotters making the switch

Charlotters, for their part, are coming on board. The town’s active Energy Committee has drafted an energy chapter for the Town Plan that lays out a strategy for Charlotte to help meet the state’s goal of 90 percent renewable energy by 2050, as well as plans for siting renewable energy projects. The committee’s plan includes a strategic vision to move municipal buildings to net zero through weatherization, increased energy efficiency and renewable energy sources. The Energy Committee offers workshops throughout the year to help Charlotters become more energy efficient; a recent series at the Charlotte Library focused on heat pumps, electric vehicles and solar installation.

Charlotte is an incredibly easy place for solar. Over 65 percent of Charlotte homes are viable for solar installations, and while many Charlotters have embraced photovoltaics for their residences, many more can take advantage of free, clean energy from the sun. Solar is now the least expensive way to heat and cool one’s home or business, and installing solar has never been more cost effective with prices as low as $2.50 per watt. Financing options make going solar more affordable than ever, with no upfront cost financing and low interest rates. Incentives such Vermont’s favorable net metering policies and a federal tax credit of 30 percent of renewable energy costs have helped thousands of Vermonters switch to photovoltaics at home.

Business owners in Charlotte are embracing solar incentives as well. The Old Lantern, Adam’s Berry Farm, Cumbancha Records, Fenn & Company, Charlotte Real Estate and Stony Loam Farm are powered by solar. Businesses are able to take advantage of tax credits and accelerated depreciation with their arrays and can better manage fluctuations in energy needs with solar power. While large-scale solar arrays have come under attack in Charlotte, new rules developed by the Public Utility Commission address community concerns by creating new regulations that effectively shut down green field siting and allowing towns input for siting using land-use goals and town plans for guidance.

It’s not all about climate change

Climate change debate aside, clean energy is an effective economic driver in our state. A recent study by the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation found that with only one-tenth of one percent of Vermont’s land area Vermont could generate 20 percent of our electricity with solar. Reaching this goal by 2025 would result in a net benefit of $8 billion, primarily by reducing our need to purchase petroleum products like gas and oil. As technology advances, we can expect to see an increase of solar on our homes, more electric vehicles on our roads, better air quality in our communities, and a cleaner, efficient grid, all helping to create a vibrant, clean energy economy.

Carrie Fenn is a solar community organizer with SunCommon. She loves answering questions about solar and can be reached at carrie.fenn@suncommon.com