6.03.2011

The high and the low of Vermont's new energy law

Even though we haven't seen the sun much in the last two months, Vermont still has a new energy law that provides a big boost for solar power in the area.

There's a lot of good, heartwarming stuff in there. But there's some very curious stuff, too.

Those curiosities have been a mindbender for the locals around here, as Town Planner types -- including myself -- have tried to wrap our heads around what it means, what it will change, and what we should be doing to gear up for the coming wave.

Two things stand out in the Energy Law, aka H.56.

The first is that the upper limit for "net metered" systems has been raised from 250KW to 500KW. "Net metered" simply means that a given system is supposedly intended to offset your own power needs, with extra juice getting piped back into the grid in exchange for some cash. It's different from a utility scale operation, as well as from an independent "off the grid" system." And for those of you who are trying to wrap your head around what the numbers mean, a single freestanding solar tracker, which is about 25 feet tall and 25 feet wide, puts out a little less that 5KW. So, under this new provision, that little ski house in a field in Vermont can now apply to the State for up to 100 freestanding units in their back pasture.

The key line there is "apply to the State." In Vermont, Town governments and zoning boards have no say in renewable installations, as all approvals come through the State's three-person Public Service Board. Officially, the PSB is supposed to take a community's "Town Plan" into considerationn. But the sole decision as to whether or not to grant a "certificate of public good" to a solar or wind farm rests with PSB. And the handful of precedents to date regarding the PSB indicate that if a Town Plan either too grey or too firm (a hole big enough for even a Bronco running back to squeeze through) the PSB will ignore it.

The second noteworthy blip in the Energy Bill, which hasn't seem much ink that I have seen, is that a lower limit for those "home net metered" systems has also been created. In the new law, systems below 5KW ... approximately the size of a single solar tracker or less ... will no longer need PSB approval of any sort. It's a streamlining thing, meant to take minor issues off the PSB plate, and will surely help speed things up for things like rooftop-mounted systems. But it will also apply to freestanding Trackers.

The way it works is that with a 5KW-or-less system, you just need to file paperwork with the State and wait 10 days. The time gap is just so that the local electric company can make sure it works for them. And if the power company doesn't object, the applicant can put the unit up anywhere they want. It doesn't matter what the local zoning says, what your setbacks are, what your neighbors say, or what your Town Plan says. It's the law.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a green energy proponent from way back. I don't just think that renewables will be part of our future, I know it. But as we take steps toward that future, I also know that there's a ton of room between "not here, not now, not ever" and "anywhere, anytime" that simply hasn't been explored.

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