A small white goat cocks his head, looking quizzically from a gray wooden pen as Christine Kaiser swings open a large, red barn door.
Shuffling through a bed of hay at her boot-clad feet, Kaiser shouts over the whir of machinery at her Nebraska Valley farm in Stowe.
“It takes a lot of energy to milk goats,” she says. “You gotta turn on the vacuums and the compressor. Then there’s the milk tank.”
With a metallic click, the whir dies down, and Kaiser steps out into the rain.
The Kaiser farm is like many in Vermont, with one exception. Its barns, equipment sheds, garages and chicken coops stand postcard-perfect next to a large, other-worldly row of solar panels, sounding a metallic “plink plink plink” in the morning rain.
“There’s four poles, 15 panels on each,” she says. “I heard about the idea at a workshop with other farmers in Massachusetts. It seemed like a good idea.”
Through credits and financing, Kaiser was able to get the system running in February. But it hasn’t all gone smoothly.
“It’s been cumbersome working with Stowe Electric,” the town-run utility, she says. “It makes for a lot of added work.”
Since she went solar, Kaiser says, dealing with the utility has been a headache — confusing bills, mixed messages and complicated state rules.
She’s not alone. Many residents and business owners with solar systems in the area report similar issues.
“I think part of it is they speak a certain language, but don’t realize that we don’t speak that language,” said Lisa Scagliotti of Waterbury, a Green Mountain Power customer who bought roof-mounted solar panels for her home last year.
“It’s difficult to know what’s going on,” said Dr. Robert Bauman, who installed five panels at his Stowe optometry office last year “I have no reason to suspect we’re not getting what we should, but it would be nice to know.”
Utilities say they understand why customers are getting confused, given the complexity of determining rates and credits. But they say they’re working to make the information easier to understand.
Every month, Kaiser gets an intricate spreadsheet from Stowe Electric, explaining how much she gets for generating power, and how much she has to pay.
Kaiser, a longtime farmer, is used to handling finances, feed orders and contracts with companies who buy her milk, but when it comes to much of her power bill, she’s in the dark.
“It’s all Greek to me,” she says.
Like many solar customers, Kaiser signed up for net metering, meaning she can get credit toward her electric bill for generating more power than she uses. But keeping track hasn’t been easy.
“It’s so confusing,” she said.
Kaiser has six meters on her property, including four that were hooked into the solar panels. But when she got a credit for the barn earlier this year, she assumed the credit would pay for the other meters. It didn’t, and she got a late-payment notice.
Now, she has all of the solar power going to the barn, and when she gets a credit from that, she has to call the utility and tell it which account to apply it to.
Also, “if you don’t use the credit, you lose it,” she said. Under Vermont law, net metering customers can hold credits for 12 months; after that, they can never claim them.
Scagliotti said she calls Green Mountain Power every few months to have her bill explained to her. The utility people have been helpful, she said, but it would be nice if they made the bill easier to read.
“It’s funny; I think solar customers are the ones most eager to see their bills,” she said. “Before we had solar, I didn’t really look at the details on our bill. Those are the people who are actually paying attention to every little thing, to see how much they are generating and how much they’re using.”
There are other issues. Kaiser had to go through a lengthy approval process with the Vermont Public Service Board before she could net meter; the Vermont Legislature has since approved a quicker application process for small home solar systems.
With political winds shifting toward renewable energy, homeowners and businesses now have myriad credits, tax breaks and other programs to incite them to go solar.
Like other utilities, Stowe Electric and Green Mountain Power are adapting to the proliferation of small-scale renewable energy, and the complex state rules that govern it.
Ellen Burt, general manager of Stowe Electric, said she is happy with how the state has rolled out rules on net metering so far. For example, the state has capped the amount of power use that can be offset by net metering at 4 percent for each utility. That way, the loss of revenue from power credits doesn’t cripple the utility, she said.
Both Green Mountain Power and Johnson-based Vermont Electric Cooperative have websites where customers can easily review frequently asked questions about net metering.
Stowe Electric does not have the information on its website, but Burt said the company is working on it.
The larger companies present their bills differently, as well. The Stowe Reporter obtained copies of bills, with personal information redacted, from both companies, and a copy of a Stowe Electric bill provided by a customer.
Of the three, the Stowe bill provides the most detail. Stowe customers get a sheet explaining how their credit is calculated, but customers interviewed for this story say it’s difficult to understand.
Burt said she understands the spreadsheet is confusing, and will consider labeling the information differently in the future.
In the meantime, she said, her department has been working hard to explain to its customers just how net metering works.
“We spend the time to make sure that the customers understand it, and if they don’t, we’ve gone out to the site and tried to explain it to them,” she said. “We’re really hands-on and try to satisfy our customers.”
Things should become clearer next year, when the department finishes rolling out its smart meters. The digital meters allow users, and the utility, to track power use in real time, instead of having a meter-reader check the numbers once a month.
The technology will allow customers to look at that information online. For a timetable on the smart meter project, visit the Stowe Electric section of the town government’s website, townofstowe.org.
Dorothy Schnure, a spokeswoman for Green Mountain Power, said its solar customers should be able to track their power use, and how much electricity they generate, more readily next year.
The utility is finishing its own smart-meter rollout and working on an online service for customers.
“Once we get it up and running, solar customers will have the information they need to know, though we are still working on the details of how it will look graphically,” she said.
Burt said Stowe Electric is always open to feedback as more customers sign up for net metering.