The Public Utility Commission has set a lower rate for new net-metering projects in Vermont. In a ruling released Thursday, the PUC says it has to balance the need to promote renewable energy with protecting customers from higher rates. The state’s net-metering program allows people and companies to get a credit on their electric bill for renewable energy projects. The first biennial update of Net-metering 2.0 went into effect Tuesday, and solar advocates have come down hard on a decision to gradually reduce the renewable energy credit adjuster. According to the ruling, many of the approximately 400 public comments expressed concerns over a slowdown in solar development in Vermont as a result of net-metering rule changes. In a specific response to Renewable Energy Vermont’s comments that “now is not the time to hit the brakes or slow solar adoption in Vermont, rather we should be looking to take a more bold position,” the PUC stated: “This argument conflates net-metering with solar development generally. As the Department and the distributed utilities pointed out, there are more cost-effective ways for Vermont to develop solar resources than continuing the current net-metering incentives.” The commission’s findings point to the ambitious goals the state has set and that managing how those goals can be effectively met includes taking into consideration the costs of different parts of Vermont’s renewable energy portfolio. They note that in the first four months of this year they’ve received over 675 applications for new net-metering systems, totaling more than 16 megawatts of new capacity (not including applications for additions to existing capacity), concluding that interest in net-metering remains high despite industry warnings about negative effects from Net-metering 2.0. “Renewable energy is flourishing in Vermont and has reached a level of maturity where it can continue to be deployed with lower incentives,” the order stated.
“(T)hese changes will help allow the selection of resources to meet the requirements of the RES to be primarily driven by competitive forces, not incentives set by the commission,” the order stated.The PUC sets rates for net-metering projects based on their size and whether the project is located on a “preferred” site, such as landfills or rooftops, as opposed to previously undeveloped land. In the size category that most residential customers would use — projects up to 15 kilowatts — the rate will go down slightly over two years. Rates will also go down for larger, up to 150-kilowatt projects, located on undeveloped land, and slightly more for the largest projects — up to 500 kilowatts — on "preferred" sites. Those systems had been dinged due to their size. The decision to change the adjusters is offset somewhat for many customers as the commission has also increased the base rate for net-metered compensation by a half-cent. A news release from SunCommon, one of the state's largest solar installers, indicates the new rules will equal a decrease in value of a homeowner’s solar system by $750. “Our mission at SunCommon is to tear down the barriers to clean energy. Decreasing Vermont’s solar incentive while President (Donald) Trump is promoting dirty coal and our climate is baking is wrong,” said James Moore, one of SunCommon’s co-founders, in a news release. Ben Edgerly Walsh, climate and energy program director for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, had similar sentiments stated in written comments to the media: “In the past year, the Scott Administration has pushed for cuts to Efficiency Vermont, the elimination of the Clean Energy Development Fund, a functional ban on wind power, and a new tax on EV charging – all while the Trump administration put a tariff on solar panels, rolled back the Clean Power Plan, and attacked fuel and appliance efficiency standards. This decision to further slow renewable energy in Vermont in the face of these attacks on climate action ignores that context and the fact that we need to speed up our action on climate – not hit the brakes.” Riley Allen, deputy commissioner at the Vermont Department of Public Service, highlighted the PUC’s efforts to operate within the legislative framework they were given — namely to balance the pace of Vermont’s renewable energy development, of which solar net-metering is but one part, with costs to other ratepayers. “I think there is a tendency for advocates to focus on net-metering to the exclusion of all the other tools and mechanisms and avenues for increasing our reliance on renewables,” said Allen. “The order reflects a good balance of consideration and recognition that there are multiple pathways, and net-metering is certainly not the least-cost pathway. I wouldn’t say this ruling is putting on the brakes. They’re reducing the above-market incentives that were used to help move the market in this direction.” Vermont's solar industry has seen significant growth, with more than 200 megawatts added in renewable generation capacity under the program over the last decade alone. “It is a complex area,” Allen said. “There are a lot of puts and takes and we’ve had a fairly short period of time since the new rule (Net-metering 2.0) was put in place, so it’s difficult to be too ambitious in the adjustments that are made with so little experience and information. I think the commission did a fine job of collecting and recognizing all the information that was available to provide what I thought was a well-balanced decision.” The ruling also included directions to staff regarding the development of standardized data forms, an application checklist and an application guidance document for the Certificate of Public Good application process, as well as a direction for the hearing officer to develop recommendations for changes to Net-metering 2.0 to simplify the CPG application process and preferred sites.