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In Vermont, A Forward-Thinking Utility Is Helping Customers Share Solar Power

Can’t have your own solar panel? Now, utility companies and startup Yeloha are making it easy to use the electricity from someone else’s–which could change everything about the grid.

In Vermont, A Forward-Thinking Utility Is Helping Customers Share Solar Power
[Illustrations: nikkytok via Shutterstock]

For all the growth in the commercial and residential solar market, with thousands of businesses and home owners now putting panels on their roofs, it’s still the case that for millions of people, solar isn’t really an option today.

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Even if they’d like to go solar, they can’t because they’re renters or their roof isn’t suitable for solar equipment, either because of its design or the direction it’s facing. Out of 117 million households in the U.S., only 16 million have solar-friendly roofs, GTM Research says. And that’s before we consider all the people who don’t have a high enough credit score to lease or loan solar, and those who are put off, or bamboozled, by the financial commitment involved.

What’s exciting, however, is that there’s now a growing range of alternatives to having your own solar situation. One, you can take part in a wide range of community solar projects, where developers put up arrays that local people can participate in. Even more interesting, there are now options to share in someone else’s home solar panel, even if that person is a long way away. Solar electrons, in other words, are being decoupled from their physical source, opening up all sorts of possible marketplace opportunities.

Yeloha, which we covered previously, is one of the first companies to make power sharing a reality. Like an Airbnb or Match.com for energy, it links up people with more capacity on their roofs than they need with people who want to get solar, but either can’t or don’t want the responsibility. Based in Boston, Yeloha is in the process of installing solar on 100 homes in Massachusetts that will act as hosts in the network.

Yeloha also plans to gather in hosts with existing equipment as well. Today it launches in Vermont under a partnership with Green Mountain Power (GMP), a utility that covers about 75% of the state’s electricity needs. Green Mountain Power solar customers will be able to sign up for Yeloha, subscribing in increments of one or more panels, and contracts lasting between one year and five years.

GMP has been working hard to enable and encourage its customers to get solar. And Mary Powell, GMP’s CEO and president, says Yeloha offers a way to expand solar’s reach. “One of the impediments you hear is that it can be a significant investment for folks, even though they want to do it. This is taking the weight off their shoulders, and allows [hosts] to leverage their own roof.” The actual transaction between parties takes place on the utility bill, with hosts getting a credit for their power and buyers paying less than normal for their power.

GMP has been celebrated for its far-sighted approach to renewables before now, notably in the New Yorker. Powell believes in distributed energy generation because it’s something that a lot of GMP’s customers want, and because there are benefits in avoiding expensive demand peaks in the grid, and reducing the need for additional investment.

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“From an environmental, economics, and resiliency perspective, I really believe in the fundamental shift that we need to make from the bulk power delivery system to a very distributed community-driven home and business-based system, where you have generation right near where you need it,” Powell says.

The grid today is highly inefficient, Powell points out. For example, GMP needs to maintain two “peaker plants”–massive jet-engine diesel-fired units–just in case it needs extra power on a hot day when everyone is running their AC. That’s a huge expense for plants that run perhaps twice a year for an hour each time. In the Rutland area, GMP has managed to avoid the need for a transmission upgrade because of the number of people getting distributed power. In the future, Powell sees the grid becoming backup for local networks that are easier to maintain, less susceptible to bad weather, and cheaper for customers.

If people are generating their own power, won’t that be bad for GMP’s business? GMP, which is a Benefit Corporation, hasn’t lost significant revenue from solar yet, though Powell sees that as a possibility going forward. It hopes to claw back lost income through reduced investment in long-range transmission and distribution, and by being a partner to customers as they upgrade their homes and businesses. Utilities can share in the revenue going to third-party contractors installing solar and associated equipment, she believes.

As for solar sharing, Yeloha’s CEO Amit Rosner hopes to work with other utilities in the future. “Although utility partnerships are not a requirement for our expansion into new territories, by partnering directly with GMP, the process can be greatly accelerated and can become more flexible,” he says.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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