Utility helps wean people of Vermont from the electric grid
As a practical matter, the less electricity the utility pulls from the regional transmission system, especially at times of peak demand, the less it has to pay in fees, producing savings it can pass on to customers. One way it does this is by remotely controlling the batteries installed through its programs, drawing upon the stored energy as needed.
Recently, Powell said, Green Mountain used this method to take the low-income development here off the grid’s electricity supply for two hours, saving an estimated $275 in transmission costs while the homes were powered by solar panels or battery storage. The amount saved was small, but such savings could add up over a year if they were realized in enough locations.
The utility, owned by Gaz Metro, a leading natural gas distributor in Quebec, is also working to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions as part of the effort to slow global warming. In 2014, it became a B Corporation. That is a voluntary designation, requiring executives to take into account not just how decisions will affect profit and shareholders, but also how they will affect the public, generally defined as society or the environment.
As part of that mission, Green Mountain became the first utility to offer customers access to Tesla’s Powerwall home battery system when it was released in 2015. Now it is starting a new program, announced in May, that will offer the bat- tery to as many as 2,000 customers for $15 a month over 10 years, or a one-time payment of $1,500. The package will include software and a Nest thermostat, which conserves electricity by adjusting temperatures to comings and goings as well as established routines.
The idea is that customers, especially when they have solar panels, heat pumps and electric vehicles, will be better able to monitor and manage their energy use.
The utility, using Tesla’s software, will be able to call upon the stored energy in the combined batteries to help meet surges in demand or to sell it on the wholesale market to help balance or smooth out fluctuations within the region.
The efforts have won plaudits from national green-energy advocates who see the utility as a leader in helping redesign the electric system, which is undergoing enormous changes as renewable sources of energy become more popular and other technologies give customers more control. Many utilities see such moves as an existential threat because their profits come mainly from getting a set rate of return that is factored into customer rates.
But Green Mountain Power has “figured out a way to do well and do good in the utility business and keep its regulators, investors and customers all happy at the same time,” said Dan Reicher, executive director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford and a cus- tomer of the utility through a family home in Vermont. “That’s a big deal these days when the rest of the industry is talking about a death spiral.”
Green Mountain has still invested in large-scale renewable-power plants, like the Stafford Hill Solar Farm — 11 acres of solar panels and battery banks spread over a landfill behind a town dump — and two wind farms. Those developments have come in for criticism from some residents and officials who object to living near noisy industrial machines and worry about marring the natural beauty that draws residents and visitors to the state. The critics include Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican who opposes putting wind turbines along mountain ridges.
But many customers say they are happy to be part of greening the area’s energy supply, whether for the financial savings, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow global warming, or just to make sure the lights stay on in a power failure.
“It’s not really any different than being anywhere else,” said Alexis LaBerge, 27, who was one of the first to move into the low-income development in Waltham from an old house that guzzled fuel to keep the house and hot water heated.
Now, when the power from the grid goes out, as it did one night this spring, she does not have to worry about food spoiling in the refrigerator. “It’s definitely nice being brandnew and having the backup,” she said.