Is GMP, Tesla close relationship good for consumers?

MONTPELIER, Vt, (WCAX) Green Mountain Power and Tesla announced a new program this week. It offers a way for customers to get solar and battery storage for a monthly cost. But the utility is also facing questions from regulators about its close relationship with Tesla, and some groups are crying foul.

Solar panels and two Powerwall batteries -- all for an electric bill for $150 to $200 a month. "It really is a game-changer," said GMP CEO Mary Powell. That's the new pilot program offering from GMP and Tesla this week -- the first of its kind in the country. "It's bundling it all in a subscription pricing model that makes it really affordable."

But this newest partnership with Tesla comes as GMP is under scrutiny from state regulators about whether its Powerwall projects are the best option for all ratepayers. The utility wants to expand a different Powerwall pilot program and lease 500 customers two Tesla batteries for $55 a month. But it has raised questions about whether GMP should be offering that service or whether it should be up to third parties.

"We're in the midst of an unprecedented transformation of our energy landscape and so there are many things that are having to be re-thought," said Public Service Commisioner June Tierny.

The Department of Public Service asked the Public Utility Commission to review the program. Tierney say it's not because they think there's any wrongdoing, but they want to make sure the Powerwall program is cost-effective, consistent with state policy and helping meet energy goals. Because if it doesn't work as planned, GMP's ratepayers might shoulder the burden.

"It is our job to ask: 'Good, if you're doing this, but is the right risk allocation being observed,'" Tierny said.

Critics at Renewable Energy Vermont filed a letter requesting an investigation. The group's Olivia Campbell Andersen says implementing this program would kill competition. "You have a foreign, investor-owned monopoly utility picking the product, picking the price and effectively eliminating customer choices," she said.

Andersen says they're also concerned that GMP, not the customer, owns the batteries. "The consumer needs to be protected and the ratepayers need to be protected and so that's why it's really important that we look at this proposal in fine detail and make sure that it's good for everyone," she said.

GMP argues it already has programs that allow people to use other battery options and intend to include 500 customers from other Vermont renewable energy companies in the expanded program. Powell says the numbers from the current pilot Powerwall program -- half a million in savings in the first year and a half -- speak for themselves. "These storage devices really save Vermonters money and they save all the Vermonters that we serve money and they make the grid more reliable. And we believe that is what at the end of the day will be shown to be true," she said.

There's no word on how long the PUC's review -- if they do one -- will take. GMP says it's already got a list of customers who are waiting for the program to expand and say anyone who wants more details about any of their programs should contact them.