Community solar power may lack key ingredient

MONTPELIER, Vt. -- Want to cut reliance on your fossil-fuel-burning utility, but don't have space for solar panels? Easy, the sales pitch goes, buy a share in the new "community solar array" being built on the outskirts of town.

See Full Article

But experts and regulators say there's a catch. Some of the biggest marketers of such deals are stripping the "green" benefits out of them and selling them elsewhere, leaving homeowners with a small discount on the same electricity they were using before.

It's commonplace and legal for companies and governments to swap energy credits. In this case, though, critics say it's a case of environmentalism meets the old Tom Waits line: "The large print giveth and the small print taketh away."

What SunCommon, Vermont's largest seller of community solar, is taking away are the renewable energy credits, or RECs, tied to community solar projects. They're selling those credits to utilities in Massachusetts and Connecticut so they can meet state requirements that they get a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources.

Severin Borenstein, a business administration professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who has followed the issue, described it this way in a blog post this month:

"If you've installed solar at your home and are now basking in the I'm-saving-the-planet warm glow, you may be in for a splash of ice water. There's a good chance someone else has purchased your halo and is wearing it right now."

Duane Peterson, SunCommon's co-president, argued in an interview that selling the RECs separately is key to keeping energy affordable for his consumers.

"We're really clear with folks what's going on with renewable energy credits," he said.

Others disagree.

The Vermont attorney general's office recently issued a warning letter to solar industry players saying some could face penalties for deceptive advertising if they are not clear when consumers are buying electrons but not environmental benefits.

The attorney general's warning says in part, "If your solar project sells the RECs, do not make any statements or suggestions that consumers are using renewable energy from your project."

SunCommon's website has four alternating front pages advertising "solar at no upfront cost," "Ditch fossil fuels, invest in solar" and saying its "mission is to tear down the barriers to renewable energy." In a web-based ad for a community solar project in Bridport, posted in July, there was no mention that RECs would be sold out-of-state.

Since the attorney general's warning letter last month, SunCommon has added information about RECs to its website, but it's still on an inside page of the site, near the bottom.

The nation's largest solar marketer, San Mateo, California-based SolarCity, promises on its website that customers can "power your home with clean energy. ... Move to a cleaner, renewable energy today." But the contract notes that the green aspects of the power can go elsewhere.

Renewable energy credits tied to the customer's solar installation "are the property of and for the benefit of SolarCity, useable at its sole discretion," it says.

SolarCity has about a 34 per cent share of the U.S. residential solar market, according to GTM Research, a market analysis firm. SolarCity expanded its footprint into Vermont this year, opening an office in Burlington.

"We're still reviewing what the attorney general has published on this and we've reached out to his office to make sure we understand all the requirements, but we will make sure that our contracts and advertisements comply with the law in Vermont," spokesman Jonathan Bass said in an email.

One difficulty is simply understanding what a REC, usually pronounced as "wreck," is.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency explains it this way:

A REC "represents the property rights to the environmental, social, and other nonpower qualities of renewable electricity generation. A REC, and its associated attributes and benefits, can be sold separately from the underlying physical electricity associated with a renewable-based generation source."

The electricity and the REC can be sold together or separately; the important thing is that the consumer knows the difference, said Bill Bender, president of Solaflect Energy, a White River Junction, Vermont, company that sells them together.

If the RECs are sold separately, a Vermont solar investor is getting what the attorney general calls "null electricity," and what Bender called "residual mix" from the New England grid, which as of last year was 39.4 per cent natural gas-generated and 34 per cent nuclear.

Vermont may soon have company in warning consumers to be wary. The Illinois Commerce Commission is reviewing possible rules, said Brad Klein, an attorney with the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago.



Advertisements

Latest Economic News

  • Asian stocks drop after big sell-off

    Economic CTV News
    HONG KONG - Asian stock markets were mostly lower Friday with investors finding little guidance with Wall Street closed for the Thanksgiving holiday and Chinese markets in focus after a big sell-off the previous day. Source
  • Stores hope deals, excitement draw shoppers for Black Friday

    Economic CTV News
    NEW YORK - Stores are hoping deals and excitement bring shoppers to stores and to their sites for Black Friday, one of the biggest shopping days of the year. But Black Friday has morphed from a single day when people got up early to score doorbusters into a whole season of deals, so shoppers may feel less need to be out. Source
  • TransCanada: Over 24K gallons of oil recovered from spill

    Economic CTV News
    AMHERST, S.D. -- TransCanada Corp. says it has recovered more than 24,000 gallons of oil from the site of a pipeline leak discovered last week in South Dakota. The company said 24,450 gallons of oil had been recovered as of Wednesday. Source
  • Aurora Cannabis buying greenhouse designer Larssen to push pot partnership plans

    Economic CBC News
    Aurora Cannabis Inc. says it intends to use its ownership of greenhouse design firm Larssen Ltd. to pressure other cannabis producers to enter partnerships that will further its aggressive growth plans. In a news release, the Alberta-based cannabis producer said Larssen is involved with more than 15 cannabis industry clients globally, including five Canadian licensed producers, but the Canadian deals will be reassessed once the buyout announced Thursday is completed. Source
  • Canadian house prices 50% overvalued compared to rents: OECD

    Economic CBC News
    Canada leads the world in terms of household debt levels, and it's a major risk to the country's economy, the OECD says in a new report. In a chapter of a report set to come out next month that has been released in advance, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development says that while virtually all countries saw their debt loads increase in the years leading up to the credit crisis of 2007, most have seen their indebtedness decrease over time. Source
  • Uber hack latest example of why vigilance required to keep your wallet safe

    Economic CBC News
    When Doug Hoyes had his credit card information stolen, fraudsters used it to pay for three taxi rides in Toronto. He wasn't in that city, but discovered the charges while routinely checking his card transactions online and notified his bank, which cancelled the card. Source
  • Security alert: How vigilance can keep contents of your wallet safe

    Economic CTV News
    OTTAWA -- When Doug Hoyes had his credit card information stolen, fraudsters used it to pay for three taxi rides in Toronto. He wasn't in that city, but discovered the charges while routinely checking his card transactions online and notified his bank, which cancelled the card. Source
  • Canadian drug-maker accused of abusing market dominance

    Economic CTV News
    OAKVILLE, Ont. -- Britain's competition regulator is accusing Canadian specialty drug company Concordia International Corp. of overcharging for a thyroid drug after raising the price by nearly 6,000 per cent between 2007 and 2017. In a statement of objections, the Competition and Markets Authority is alleging Concordia abused its market dominance in the supply of liothyronine tablets. Source
  • Regulator investigating Sears Canada liquidation sale prices: monitor

    Economic CTV News
    TORONTO -- The Competition Bureau is investigating allegations that prices on some merchandise were marked up ahead of the liquidation sales at Sears Canada that began last month, the court-appointed monitor overseeing the retailer says. Source
  • Sears Canada liquidation sale pricing under investigation

    Economic CTV News
    TORONTO -- The Competition Bureau is investigating allegations that prices on some merchandise were marked up ahead of the liquidation sales at Sears Canada that began last month, the court-appointed monitor overseeing the retailer says. Source