Incentives boost creative energy projects

Wednesday May 26, 2010

MANCHESTER --Opinions vary on the long-term benefit of a state law enacted a year ago to encourage small renewable energy projects.

Organized by Renewable Energy Vermont, the 2010 Distributed Generation Northeast Conference on May 19 focused on lessons learned from the first phases of the "Feed-In Tariff," which became law in May 2009 without Gov. James Douglas’ signature.

The conference -- held at the Equinox resort -- also focused on the importance of a "smart grid" -- that is, a statewide and regional electricity distribution system better able to accept, manage, store and distribute electricity.

A seminar at the conference, "The Story of Vermont’s Feed-In Tariff -- Lessons Learned," drew about 100 entrepreneurs, developers, regulators, utility officials and others. Panelists discussed the Vermont Energy Act of 2009, which established mandatory cost-based prices for projects totaling 50 megawatts of power from renewable energy technologies to be fed into the power grid.

According to an analysis by the Vermont Department of Public Service, these prices -- which varied by type of renewable energy -- were higher, and often much higher, than the current prices of market-based alternatives. The prices were calculated to allow developers of renewable power to recover their costs plus a return on their investment.

Participants noted that 50 megawatts is about 1 percent of Vermont’s power usage.

When the Vermont Public Service Board opened bids for the program on Oct. 19, it received proposals for 14.3 megawatts of solar energy, 13 megawatts of biomass, 8.1 megawatts of wind power, 7.8 of hydro power, 3.1 megawatts of farm methane and 1.7 megawatts of landfill gas.

A number of the applications accepted for processing are for local projects:

These include:

* A 2.2 megawatt solar project proposed by EOS Ventures for the former Green Mountain Racetrack in Pownal;

* A 2.2 megawatt biomass facility for the Southern Vermont College campus in Bennington, proposed by Pizzagalli Construction Co.;

* The 1.95 megawatt New Boston Wind Farm proposed for Jacksonville by Southport Power LLC;

* The 1.95 megawatt Stamford Wind Farm proposed for Stamford, also by Southport Power LLC;

* The 350 kilowatt Fillmore Digester farm methane facility proposed for Bennington;

* The 700 kilowatt Pownal Brownfield Hydro project proposed at the former Pownal Tannery site by Encore Redevelopment.

While some proponents feel the Feed-In Tariff program will have a transformative effect on Vermont’s economy, the Department of Public Service -- in a December report frequently cited at the conference -- estimated that long-term employment generated by the program would average just 13 full-time jobs per year.

Focus on smaller projects

Scott Starr, of groSolar, was one of the speakers at the "Lessons Learned" seminar. This company was founded in Vermont and is headquartered in White River Junction. The company started out by doing residential solar projects, he said.

"We’ve done literally thousands of rooftop projects, which really gave us the ability to understand what dealers needed across the country and form what’s now the largest U.S.-owned distributor of PV (photo voltaic) equipment," he said. "So we help with PV in almost every state in the nation. And that has also bettered our commercial business ... where we focus on 1 to 2 megawatt projects just like these in Vermont."

He showed a few slides of projects in other states, including a rooftop project of almost 500 kilowatts in Connecticut. "It’s fun to show you guys these pictures of these projects, but I wish I could show you Vermont projects," he said. "We need lots of 1 to 2 megawatt projects sited to the right place on the grid."

Starr said the idea that the feed-in tariff would create no new jobs was inaccurate. "And the fact is without the Vermont feed-in tariff I have nothing to show you ... Give us a year and I’ll show you projects just this size and scale, even prettier, in Vermont."

"So the notion that the feed-in tariff doesn’t bring great projects to Vermont built by local companies with local labor using local resources is inaccurate."

Dennis McPadden, of Chester, owner of a company called MECTEK, said during lunch at the conference that he sees renewable energy as a way to give back to the next generation. Part of what he does is retrofit buildings to make them more energy efficient.

The success of the first year of the feed-in tariff "is that we learned a lot from it. We took a small step," he said. "I think what we need to do is take another step. Maybe instead of having a 50-megawatt cap (on projects approved for the special prices) we have a 100-megawatt cap. The lessons that we learned from this one can keep the ball rolling."


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