OPINION: Vermont offers a peek at a solar energy future

by Michael Shank | Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance
Monday, 20 January 2020 21:24 GMT

Solar panels are pictured at the BP America Gasosaurus Gas Unit well site in Lufkin, Texas, U.S., June 13, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A peer-to-peer energy sales platform will allow businesses to buy locally generated renewable power from others in the U.S. state

Michael Shank is the communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and adjunct faculty at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

When it comes to green energy innovation, there are few American states that innovate like Vermont. Last month, Vermont’s biggest power utility – Green Mountain Power (GMP) – launched a peer-to-peer energy sales platform that will allow businesses to buy locally generated renewable power from other Vermonters.

For businesses going green or wanting to go green, this makes a ton of sense. As GMP noted, this is the quickest way to be renewable while “avoiding construction costs, long-term power contracts, loans or complicated spreadsheets”.

This is great news, and it’s about time. More is needed, of course, as this initial pilot program is limited to 50 businesses and doesn’t include resident-to-resident trading opportunities, which is clearly the future (take note, Vermont Public Utility Commission).

From Brooklyn to Bangladesh, residences with rooftop solar are already doing this. And the virtual trading platform is easy to implement, relying on blockchain technology (see Fast Company’s 2019 World Changing Ideas competition, for which I served as judge for Energy entries, for the latest in peer-to-peer blockchain technology).

Currently, in Vermont, and in many states, most solar power-producing residents are only able to donate extra net-metered credits to neighbors. A few solar producing residents can participate in GMP’s new pilot above, and sell to those 50 businesses, but only if they installed their solar years ago, in the first phase of net-metering.

For the rest of us, there’s no way to sell the solar that we’re producing and, in Vermont, net-metered credits expire annually if you don’t use them.

Clearly that needs to change if we want to achieve energy independence and energy freedom and quickly scale up solar power production in the state. 

Why? Because it’s a much more attractive proposition to a potential solar power producer if, after purchasing and installing their own panels, they get to keep the credits indefinitely and trade them to any resident or business on a peer-to-peer marketplace platform. That’s what free trade looks like and that’s the future.

Since GMP wants to get to 100% carbon free energy by 2025 and 100% renewable by 2030, which is, laudably, what they’ve committed to, this is how to do it, by empowering renewable energy producers across the state.

This is a much more sustainable approach – i.e. scaling up locally-produced renewable energy – than importing people-and-habitat-displacing hydro power from Canada, which is part of GMP’s current practice and future plans.

This is also how you counter some of the local “not in my backyard” resistance to bigger solar arrays in Vermont fields.

One of the main drivers behind local resistance to big solar arrays is the feeling that outsider companies – from New Jersey, for example (and this is a true story) – are coming in, taking the solar, and leaving without benefitting the town whose fields are now arrayed by solar. In contrast, solar projects that provide direct financial benefit to local communities, beyond the obvious tax revenue or project-related job creation, face far less resistance.

This is understandable. People want to see some kind of tangible, local return if they’re going to give up views for a major megawatt solar array. And if peer-to-peer trading was rolled out across the state – including resident-to-resident, business-to-business, and resident-to-business trading – renewable energy projects could offer that financial return to local communities.

If anyone can lead in this way it’ll be Green Mountain Power. To its credit, GMP is constantly rethinking what it means to be a utility.

It’s partnership with Tesla, for example, was one-of-a-kind. It offered residents leasable Powerwall batteries for only $15 a month. The Powerwall pilot lets customers store power from their own solar or from the grid. (These batteries have been and continue to be an essential feature of my rural farm as power outages are frequent due to increasingly volatile and unpredictable weather patterns.)

GMP gets to use the batteries during peak load and residents get to use the batteries when the grid goes down. It’s a win-win. No other state utility has pioneered such a partnership and it serves as a model for utilities wanting to remain viable in a greener, cleaner power future.

And, like many utilities across America, GMP is also smartly investing in, rebating, and promoting green products – from heat pumps and electric vehicles, to electric bikes and household e-control. They’re even bundling packages for solar, battery storage, and electric vehicles, and smartly messaging it as “energy independence” and “resilience” for your home, which of course it is.

So, GMP gets it. And they’re innovating all the time, which is great. But if they, and the state’s public utilities commission, are really interested in promoting energy independence, then more is needed. Vermont could lead the way nationally by offering all businesses, residences and whole neighborhoods the opportunity to be their own micro-grid, selling the renewable energy they produce, and keeping the credits indefinitely, if desired.

What a game-changer that would be. And that’s ultimately what energy freedom looks like.

It’s time to innovate some more, Vermont. This is the future.   

 

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