Our opinion: A bright future with solar

Friday July 26, 2013

When Winstanley Enterprises came to the Brattleboro Selectboard with a proposal to build a two-megawatt solar farm along Interstate 91, just north of the West River, we were excited about the idea of a renewable energy project that could generate enough power to provide electricity to about 400 homes, while also offsetting more than 123 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions over the next 20 years.

That enthusiasm was tempered, however, with concern that the public would weigh in against the project because of the potential impact the solar farm would have on the viewshed for traffic on I-91. Fortunately, most of the feedback the board received on the project was positive, and it reaffirmed our faith in fellow Vermonters as forward-looking people who are genuinely concerned about both the local and the global community.

Of course, the public reaction to the solar farm shouldn't have surprised us. Over the past few years homeowners, businesses, schools and municipalities across the region have all decided to make an investment in solar power. We have long known that Vermont is one of the more progressive states when it comes to seeking out alternative energy sources, all the way up to the state Legislature, which set an ambitious goal of getting 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2017.

It's no surprise, then, that a new report shows Vermont ranks ninth in the nation for per capita solar installations.

This makes Vermont one of a dozen states that have led the nation in solar energy with supportive policies and a commitment to continued expansion, according to Lighting the Way: What We Can Learn from America's Top 12 Solar States. The report comes from the Environment America Research & Policy Center in partnership locally with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

"More and more, homes and businesses are turning to solar as a pollution-free energy source with no fuel costs," Ben Walsh, clean energy advocate with VPIRG, said in a statement. "With the increasing threat of global warming, we must maintain momentum and resist the temptation to sit back and coast. States like Vermont can show the way."

There are some naysayers who argue that we can never replace all of our fossil fuel needs with alterative energy sources, but that will only be true if we all throw our hands up in defeat without even trying. The fact is solar is on the rise across the country. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research, America had more than three times as much solar capacity as it did in 2010, and more than 10 times as much as it did in 2007. To boot, SEIA also found that the price to install a solar system fell by 26 percent in 2012.

"The sky's the limit on solar energy," said Rob Sargent, energy program director for Environment America. "Vermont's progress should make us confident that we can do much more. To create a clean energy future Vermonters need to continue building on the policies that are working."

At the same time, we have to be realistic. Those naysayers do have a point when they say we have a long way to go before we can eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels.

In its report, VPIRG highlighted several policy changes that would make going solar even easier and more affordable for Vermonters. For starters, under current law, once a utility has enough solar capacity to hit 4 percent of its peak electric demand, it can deny customers the right to go solar. That must change. The state also should streamline permitting to make it easier to build community-scale systems above 150 kW in size, and allow larger community-scale systems to be built under the net metering law, which currently limits systems to 500 kW.

"Today we celebrate the solar success of our state, but we also recognize that we cannot lose the momentum we have," concluded VPIRG's Walsh. "Solar is growing fast, and by building on our success and ensuring that all Vermonters continue to have the right to go renewable, we can make certain solar is a cornerstone in Vermont's efforts to combat climate change."

Fortunately, the alternative energy movement in Vermont has the support of Gov. Peter Shumlin, who joined VPIRG in praising the state's progress while also calling for more work to be done.

"Vermont is putting solar power to work and is leading the way to a clean energy future that tackles the threat of climate change while growing jobs and the economy," Shumlin said in a statement. "We have more than doubled our solar energy in the last two and a half years, but we know our work is not done. We plan to keep Vermont at the forefront of this energy revolution."

With the support of everyone from individual residents and businesses to schools and municipalities, all the way up to the state government, the future of solar power in Vermont looks very bright indeed.


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