Valley News – Royalton-area solar project aims for affordability

ROYALTON — Wendy Rogers had a new energy-efficient modular home delivered in White River Junction last week and is also buying a share of a new community solar project in Royalton.

Her interest in energy efficiency stems, in part, from her experience working for more than 20 years at a pharmacy in Woodstock.

“My customers were making choices between heating their home and paying for their pills, or paying for heating their homes or paying for groceries. And when I’m in the 80s, I don’t want to be making those choices,” she said.

As Rogers was designing her home, the team at Vermod, the company that built her home, told her about the White River Community Solar project. The South Royalton-based nonprofit Building A Local Economy and the Vermont Law School Energy Clinic had been collaborating to get the project off the ground since 2015. This summer, Catamount Solar is starting construction on the solar array at Putting Down Roots Farm.

By late August, the 23 families and one small business participating in the project will see savings on their utility bills. Energy Clinic director Kevin Jones estimates that participants’ initial investment of $3,061 per kilowatt should repay itself in less than twelve years. With a 26% investment tax credit, participants may be able to recoup their capital sooner.

Normally, renters, homeowners with shaded property, or middle-income residents struggle to find ways to offset their utility bills with solar power because they cannot easily install roof panels. Supporters of the project argue that community solar allows participants to save money through an economy-of-scale model that lowers the price of the initial investment.

Unlike most solar projects, Jones said that this community-solar model allows participants to hold onto “renewable energy credits.” RECs are usually sold to the utility company in order to help the state meet its renewable energy goals. Because Vermont counts hydropower as renewable, Green Mountain Power often sells solar and wind credits to utilities in other states and replaces them with cheaper hydropower credits at a profit. The company argues that this model helps it keep customers’ monthly utility bills low.

“The participants get to say that they’re getting their power from solar energy, and you can’t claim that if you sell your RECs. It’s as simple as that,” said BALE director Chris Wood.

Jeff Robertson, who manages his mother’s Locust Creek Country Store in Bethel, joined the solar project two years ago to eliminate a major operating expense and out of concern for the environment. He knew that he wouldn’t be able to install enough solar panels on the roof to cover the store’s utilities, and so a community solar project was the perfect fit. He said he is interested in buying into a future BALE community-solar project when the store installs a heat pump that would push up the electric bill.

“I would have preferred that they sell the RECs,” he said. “We have no intention of making any claims about where our power comes from. I have the personal satisfaction of knowing our power is offset. It is foolish not to take advantage of all the incentives for investing in solar energy.”

Wood described the solar project as “a local economy initiative,” given that the energy savings and the RECs are staying local.

The 150-kilowatt array will take up approximately one acre of sloped land on Russell Lewczuk-Jensen’s farm. Some residents called him because they were concerned that he was giving up prime agricultural land, but Lewczuk-Jensen said that it was too dangerous to drive a tractor along the steep incline. He pointed out how the site is only visible from a short stretch of Royalton Hill Road. He plans to minimize mowing by grazing his meat birds between the panels.

“If you’re making the right choices on where solar is, it is as important as food,” he said. “We need electricity for farming.”

The White River solar project is paying him a one-time fee to use the plot for the next 25 years. He said he will immediately use the money to install his own solar panels to supply the farm with renewable energy.

“The payment from the solar will eliminate our electricity bill. Electricity is the only thing we pull from the grid,” he said. “We’ll be one step closer to being sustainable.”

Lewczuk-Jensen first agreed to the project about six years ago. Most solar arrays don’t take so long to go from planning to implementation, but the project organizers said they encountered a string of regulatory hurdles that repeatedly delayed the project.

“A great idea came up against the rules,” said Jones. When the project first came up for approval, Green Mountain Power had already reached its 15% cap for net-metering, a program by which owners of solar panels get credited for energy they add to the grid.

Under the Public Utilities Commission’s 2017 regulations, owners of solar arrays who retain the RECs would receive 4 cents less per kwh from GMP than other net-metering participants. Jones called the lower rate an “in perpetuity penalty.”

The Vermont Public Service Board in 2017 argued that net-metering customers who transfer the RECs to the utility “support compliance with Vermont’s renewable energy standards” and “should be compensated at a higher rate because they have forgone personal benefits to support a public policy good.”

Jones testified multiple times before the Legislature and the PUC to advocate for more favorable rules for net-metering customers who want to retain the RECs. He argued that the rule undermined legislative goals to cut Vermont’s emissions.

“It’s troubling that it disincentivizes locally owned projects that want to keep the renewables and the carbon reductions in-state,” he said.

Unable to change the regulations, Jones and Wood worked together to build a replicable model that would shield participants from the financial risks of the permitting process for a community solar project. Jones said it was so complex that it cost about $30,000. Even when they are sharing the cost, few low- or middle-income people can afford to invest thousands in a planned solar array when there is a risk that the project will be denied. So, VLS and BALE collaborated to build a new model for community solar projects that insulates the participants from that risk. The Energy Clinic provided approximately $15,000 in pro bono legal work, which doubled as a way to give students hands-on experience navigating the state’s energy laws.

Jones and Wood successfully applied to the Vermont State Employees Credit Union’s Giving Committee for a $15,000 “feed capital fund” to pay for the other half of the permitting process.

“Hopefully, after a couple of successful projects, it could be replicated and it could grow so that there would be enough to do three or four projects simultaneously, not just one at a time,” said Laurie Fielder, director of the credit union’s VGreen program.

The fund will continue to finance community-owned solar projects in the area, and Jones is already talking to the Strafford Energy Committee about siting another community solar project there.

Rogers, the White River Junction resident moving into the new home, said she has more plans for getting closer to net-zero in other parts of her life. She hopes to buy a battery-powered lawnmower and she said that her next car will be a hybrid.

“Everyone can do a little bit, and it will add up,” said Rogers.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.