VTDIGGER 4/28/20
By Michael Shank

n Vermont’s all-hands-on-deck response to the Covid-19 crisis, no stone is left unturned. And it’s incredibly inspiring. Everyone is chipping in, helping neighbors with grocery deliveries, donating goods to local food shelves and banks, making homemade masks for health workers, and even donating government stimulus checks to local nonprofits. Meanwhile, state agencies are redeploying staff to help with the crisis, industries are retooling to help produce basic health care equipment, and building owners are repurposing their facilities for medical care.

The longer-term hit to Vermont communities and local economies, however, will require more than this. If we want to save our local businesses, nonprofits and unemployed households, many of whom are struggling to pay their monthly bills right now, we’ll need to be even more creative in our Covid-19 response. One idea, in particular, is an easy lift with longer-term economic benefits and could be pursued immediately: the ability to offset our fellow Vermonters’ electricity bills.

For the average Vermont resident, electricity costs are roughly $100 per month, while commercial costs for Vermont businesses average over $450 per month. These costs are particularly burdensome during a recession, and as we look toward limited consumer activity for the next several months, these monthly bills will undoubtedly mount up, making it difficult for some local nonprofits and small businesses to weather the Covid-19 crisis.

How to fix?

This is how we do it: We make it easy for any Vermonter producing extra solar or wind power, whether residential or commercial, to donate their extra credits – currently stored up in their “net meter bank,” which is what the statewide utility Green Mountain Power calls it – to businesses, nonprofits and households hardest hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis.

Think of the opportunity here to help needy Vermonters with existing resources. These are credits already generated. The only cost associated would be the configuring of the donation system, a software plugin, for example, that allows easy transfer from the solar producer’s account to the receiving business, nonprofit or household that’s struggling right now.

We need something like this asap, when Vermont businesses, nonprofits and households are struggling to pay their monthly bills. Not later. And thanks to a sunny winter and spring, I have $1,300 stored up in my net meter bank ready to donate to local businesses, nonprofits and residents. They’re just sitting there waiting to be helpful to fellow Vermonters who need the assistance.

Once such a system is set up, a big chunk of my credits will go to the animal sanctuary – Kinder Way Farm Sanctuary – that recently rescued 400 abused animals from a nearby Vermont farm. The sanctuary, a Vermont-based nonprofit, had relied on its Castleton-based coffeehouse revenue to sustain the nonprofit’s efforts. Now that the coffeehouse is closed due to Covid-19, the monthly electricity costs – which increased with the influx of animals – has become harder to pay. You can see how Covid-19 is compounding these types of problems all across the state.

If we had the donation system up and running now, I could move my extra credits over to Kinder Way’s account immediately, helping a fellow Vermonter do good for the community. And if we temporarily lift the arbitrary one-year expiration date on these solar credits, we’ll be able to continue to support Vermonters in need until the economy is back up and running again. A simple ask with a simple lift. We need to set up these systems immediately before our local economy tanks even further.

Now is the time for all of us to think outside the box of what’s possible. We’re in a completely new normal and we’re not going back to the previous normal anytime soon. We need everyone to chip in – including Vermont utilities – to make it possible to help each other with our extra resources – in this case, solar. I’m ready to give away the net metered bank. Help me do good, GMP. Now is the time.