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Washington Electric Co-op, which serves customers in Fayston, Moretown and Duxbury, announced last week that it would begin limiting net-metered solar power systems to 5 kilowatts. Net-metering allows customers to sell excess power back to the utility at a favorable rate.
The news was greeted with much dismay in Central Vermont and in the state where the advent of net-metered systems has served as a stimulus for homeowners to install solar arrays. Net-metering has also paved the way for a small but important influx of new jobs.
By law, utilities in Vermont may limit new net-metering systems when the amount of solar power (or other alternative energy) they are net-metering hits or exceeds 4 percent of a utility's peak power demands.
What drove the Washington Electric Co-op decision was a concern that so many customers are reducing their bills to nothing and getting such large credits that they are not paying the customer service and efficiency charges.
According to the co-op this is resulting in a cost shift to customers who are not producing power and could lead to rate increases. Right now Washington Electric Co-op has 11,000 member/customers of whom there are 172 net-metered customers.
Other Vermont utilities, citing the same concerns, have stopped accepting net-metered systems completely, having reached their 4 percent threshold.
It is understandable that utilities need to protect enough of their revenue stream to be able to maintain the infrastructure without creating two classes of customers – those who do and those who don't generate power.
It is also understandable that limiting new systems this way would create such a hue and cry in the state. It's ironic that some of the extremely expensive infrastructure repairs that have happened over the past two years might be linked to climate change, heightening the need for more versus less solar power.
This problem will not be fixed by the Vermont Public Service Board or on a utility-by-utility basis. It's a statewide policy issue that is going to fall squarely on the shoulders of the state legislators.