Solar Flares: Call to Double Vermont’s Renewable Energy Capacity Ignites Debate

Upper Valley Honda Solar 1

Seven Days

Four years ago, chilly Vermont was one of the hot spots in the nation’s solar industry. Fields of dark, shiny panels were popping up with surprising frequency in pastures where heifers had grazed.

Homeowners and businesses around the state, enticed by generous federal and local subsidies, proudly bolted photovoltaic cells on their rooftops or to poles allowing them to track the sun’s arc across the sky. Solar companies were growing so quickly that Vermont had more solar jobs per capita than any other state.

What a difference a few years makes.

Solar developers and installers say they’ve been burned by new state regulations that have reduced the rates paid for solar power at the precise time when they’ve been socked with soaring costs.

“The industry overall in Vermont has seen a dramatic decline,” said James Moore, co-president of Waterbury-based SunCommon.

New grid-connection fees, longer and more restrictive permitting processes, higher installation costs, and hefty tariffs on imported panels have forced the company to look for new markets outside the Green Mountain State.

“The regulatory changes over the last few years have limited solar’s growth and have limited Vermonters’ ability to participate,” Moore said. “We would love to grow more here, but we’ve looked to other places for our hiring.”

That includes New York, where business conditions are favorable, he said. Solar jobs there grew by 10 percent in 2019, according to Renewable Energy Vermont, a Montpelier-based advocacy group.

Meanwhile, solar jobs in Vermont have declined 33 percent since 2016, to 1,186 last year, according to statistics compiled by the Solar Foundation. During that time, the state has slid from first to third in per capita solar jobs, displaced by Nevada and Utah.

“Our jobs have literally been exported out of state,” said Olivia Campbell Andersen, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont. “Other states are setting policies to encourage solar, but Vermont’s regulators are going in the opposite direction.”

Norwich Solar is also struggling under the regulatory changes, which CEO Jim Merriam says have frustrated his company’s efforts to expand the state’s renewable energy capacity.

Vermont’s regulators have pared the price utilities must pay to homeowners and others who sell their excess solar power, an arrangement known as net-metering. The per-kilowatt-hour rate for small systems has dropped 13 percent, from 20 cents in 2016 to 17.4 cents today, with more tightening ahead, according to the Department of Public Service. The rate paid to larger systems has dropped even more sharply, by 35 percent, Merriam said.

“The costs have gone up dramatically for us, while the prices have come down,” Merriam said. “What industry out there gets paid less every year and is expected to pay more every year?”

The amount of new solar capacity installed annually in the state peaked in 2016 and declined for the next two years. New installations increased slightly in 2019, but they remain well below the 2016 high.

Applications for new net-metered solar projects are also slumping. The total capacity of projects proposed in 2019 was 21 megawatts, roughly half the previous year’s.

In the face of such dimming prospects and growing concerns about climate change, Vermont’s solar industry is pressing legislators to brighten its prospects.