Vermont reaching 'net metering' cap with solar power expansion

WILSON RING, Associated Press
In this Friday Oct. 23, 2015 photo, solar panels that are part of a 100-kilowatt net metered project stand in a field on the McKnight Farm in East Montpelier, Vt. In 2014 Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a law at the farm which more than tripled the amount amount of electricity that can be sent to the electric grid from such projects. The amount of electricity being produced in the state by small net metered projects is growing faster than expected, and many utilities are nearing the cap established by the law. (Photo/Wilson Ring)
Copyright 2015, The Associated Press

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Less than two years after Vermont almost quadrupled the amount of renewable power that customers could sell back to their electric utilities, at least one utility has reached the cap while others are expected to reach it early next year.

It follows a boom in renewable energy projects across Vermont, the vast majority solar panels that have been sprouting on rooftops and in fields. Some utilities already have waiting lists of customers that would like to install more solar power in a process called "net metering." Others aren't accepting new projects.

But Vermont's utility regulators are expected to release soon their proposal for new rules governing net metering in the future, possibly eliminating the cap, but making other changes to the way the system works.

Vermont's largest utility, Green Mountain Power, which serves about three quarters of the state's electric customers, expects to reach the net metering cap of 15 percent of their peak load by early next year.

"We are being tremendously successful and this is very good news," said Chris Recchia, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service, which helps develop utility policy for the state. "This is a problem we like to have. We weren't expecting it."

Net metering is the process by which small power producers, such as homeowners, set up their own solar panels and sell what power they don't use back to their utility for credit on their bills.

In Vermont, the size of most projects subject to net metering is limited to 500 kilowatts, the amount of power produced by about 4 acres of solar panels. By contrast, a typical rooftop solar project is about 6 kilowatts. Most solar projects larger than 500 kilowatts are governed in the same way as traditional sources of electricity.

For years, Vermont utilities were required to accept up to 4 percent of their peak loads from net metering projects. In 2014, the law was expanded to 15 percent. Other changes in the new law included creating a framework to redesign the law for 2017 and beyond, when federal tax credits for solar projects may expire.

As part of that, Vermont's utility-regulating Public Service Board is required to propose new rules by January that would govern net metering into the future without the need for changes to state law.

So far only Hardwick Electric, which serves customers in Hardwick and parts of surrounding towns, has reached the cap.

The expansion in net metering projects is driven by the larger projects, said David Hallquist, the CEO of the Vermont Electric Cooperative, which was allowed by regulators to phase in the net-metering cap over three years.

The utility has already reached its 2015 cap and could, because of projects that are already in the works, hit its 2016 cap on Jan. 1.

"We're accepting the applications in the order that they came in so that when our program opens up in January we can honor those in terms of first-come, first-served," Hallquist said. "We are anticipating the program opening up and closing right away because we have a lot of backlog."

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