The Washington Electric Coop’s most recent member newsletter is largely devoted to arguing against net-metering, the single most effective program for bringing renewable power to Vermont. Unfortunately, despite devoting many pages to attacking the cost and environmental benefits of net-metering, the critique glosses over the benefits of this successful program.
Let’s start with what net-metering is and why it has played such an integral role in expanding renewable energy generation – and particularly solar – in Vermont. Net-metering allows Vermont families and businesses to send solar power back to the grid to be used by other Vermonters when their solar panels are generating more electricity than they are using. In exchange, they can use the same amount of electricity from the grid at no cost when they are generating less electricity than they are using. If over the course of a month, they generate more electricity than they use, they get a bill credit that they can apply against future electricity usage. The program makes it more affordable for Vermonters to go solar while helping add new, clean, renewable energy to the grid. It is simple, intuitive, and successful.
Net-metering has brought more than 280 MW of solar capacity to Vermont, producing enough electricity to power over 40,000 homes. In a world where more than 50% of the electricity in New England is generated by burning fossil fuels and where Vermont’s electricity usage is expected to increase by more than a third by the end of the decade, this is a very good thing. We need more renewable power and we need it now.
The urgent need for more renewable power across our regions makes WEC’s assertion that “net-metering in WEC territory offers little additional environmental benefit” all the more narrow-minded, and frankly, inaccurate. Across New England, at virtually all times of the year, natural gas power plants are the marginal generating unit. On the coldest winter days, we are still dependent on dirty, expensive oil and even coal plants! This means anytime that we have more solar generation, we have less fossil fuel generation. Since the flow of electricity does not stop at the edge of the utility, more solar available in WEC means that more clean energy can flow to the larger grid (or in the case of WEC’s Coventry Landfill generating facility, the more landfill gas that can be used at other times in the day so WEC does not have to buy power from the market as the facility’s under production is currently forcing WEC to do). While emissions trading schemes can mask this at the level of the individual utility territory, at the atmospheric level, the plain fact is that when we have more solar generation, including in WEC, we have less carbon going into the atmosphere.
WEC does raise the important point that in a small portion of its service territory the existing transmission infrastructure is inadequate and more solar power, at certain times, can result in the curtailment of wind facilities but this is not true for the majority of the communities WEC serves. Rather than slowing solar installations, our utilities and state regulators should be looking at how to modernize the grid through investments in storage and transmission, and even smart curtailment policies, that let us utilize our renewable resources most effectively.
Finally, there is the issue of the cost of the net-metering program. WEC asserts that net metering has raised rates by 8.3% but this estimate should be taken with a large grain of salt. WEC’s cost calculation is far from comprehensive, failing to include the benefit of the infrastructure upgrades that net-metering customers often pay for when they connect to the grid and including lost sales revenue as a cost though the utility also “losses” revenue anytime a homeowner switches to more efficient appliances or is more diligent about turning off the lights. While there may be some cost to net-metering, the fundamental truth is that halting climate change will not be free; it will require investment
Fortunately, the newly passed Inflation Reduction Act gives Vermont a great opportunity to invest in renewables. To avert the climate crisis, we need more of everything, more net-metering, more of the larger renewable projects built under the now-expiring Standard Offer program that WEC advocates for, and more storage. These investments will have an upfront cost but we can’t let these costs deter the green energy transition any longer than they already have because the cost of failing to act now is almost unimaginably higher.