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Solar power makes rapid advances across New York


Credit: MorgueFile

ALBANY -- Rooftop and commercial solar projects getting state support are mushrooming in New York, with the Cuomo administration pushing hard to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and get to an energy diet of 50 percent renewables by 2030.

State officials report that state-supported solar energy projects increased in 2016 to 795 percent more than the number that was in the pipeline just five years earlier.

"The residential market for solar is thriving in New York state," said David Sandbank, director of the NY-SUN, an arm of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

The state says the solar projects fostered by the program account for nearly 744 megawatts from installations since 2011. The power needs of more than 120,000 homes can be met with that amount of production, officials said, noting the advances have been accelerated by a decline in solar equipment prices, more installation businesses entering the consumer market and incentives offered by the state.

This explosive growth, however, has not come without speedbumps.

Dozens of towns have passed temporary moratoriums on solar development. The impetus for those actions was not to derail projects but more to slow them while municipalities updated their land use rules, according to officials at the Associations of Towns, faced with a proposed solar development at a local farm, officials in the Schoharie town of Sharon decided to hit the pause button in 2015, passing a six-month moratorium that allowed them to update zoning regulations.

"The moratorium just gave us a chance to finish the work on our law, but we weren't against the project," said Sharon Supervisor Sandra Manko. She said that developer later lost interest, but the town stands poised to consider other solar arrays at sites that conform to the town rules.

Another hurdle for developers is that some towns have voted to opt out of a state law designed to foster the growth of solar power by exempting the value of solar panels when tax assessments are calculated.

Those towns were eager to capture additional revenue from the property improvements. But officials at NYSERDA say they are working with municipal leaders to suggest other options that allow solar projects to proceed, with the towns ending up with some additional revenue.

"The solar industry has been running up against some communities that might think this is a way to generate revenue," acknowledged Sandbank. In reality, though, they end up with no new revenue because projects wither once a town opts out of the tax incentives for landowners, he said.

His agency has been working with towns to show there are alternative arrangements that can provide them with payments in lieu of taxes -- so-called PILOTS -- so they can benefit financially from solar projects without, he said, smothering what in many places is becoming a booming industry.

"There is no solar project I have heard of that could actually move forward based on a locality opting out" and thus wiping out the financial incentive for property owners, Sandbank said.

Such complications have not gone unnoticed by the New York Farm Bureau, whose staff has been stepping up efforts to guide the operators of the state's estimated 36,000 farms. Those landowners are fielding offers from solar developers looking to lease tracts to erect solar arrays, with guarantees of payments going to farmers, who in many cases are struggling financially, according to the Farm Bureau.

"Like everything else, solar has its pluses and minuses," said Lindsay Wickham, a Farm Bureau adviser for New York's Southern Tier region.

He likened what New York farmers are facing to the overtures many got a decade ago from landmen for the natural gas industry trying to secure leases for drilling operations.

"Money is money, but you have to be cautious when the land is what you make your living off," he said. He said several craft wine and beer producers in his region are pleased with the results of taking on solar projects.

But he said one farmer rushed into a deal for a commercial solar array without realizing that the local school district had opted out of the state's tax incentive benefits, and thus got hit with a higher appraisal that negated any profit from the energy production.

More output from solar production is expected to come as NY-SUN provides new incentives for so-called community solar installations, which produce energy that utilities are required to buy under state incentive programs.

New York's utility regulator, the Public Service Commission, is expected to approve a rule next week that some solar advocates say will help propel community solar projects.

These installations are designed to allow not only homeowners but also tenants to become subscribers of the usually ground-mounted projects that are sited near where they live by buying shares of the operations. At the same time, they remain customers of the local utility.

Jeff Cramer, director of the Coalition for Community Solar Access, a national group representing several major solar companies, said he expects the New York rule change will allow the form of green energy production to greatly accelerate in New York by giving more consumers a voice in how they want power to be generated.

"The industry is primed and more than ready to go to expand access to community solar -- starting tomorrow," Cramer said.

The opportunities beckoning from community solar are generating interest from even smaller companies that have specialized in residential installations.

Mary Jo Cronin, who with her partner, John Doherty, runs Revolution Solar in the Otsego County town of Milford, observed that the key to successful community solar will be finding locations that suit the needs of consumers.

She said businesses and homeowners are finding they can greatly reduce their energy costs by adding solar installations. "Things will really start happening for community solar once the first ones roll out and all the kinks are worked out," Cronin said.

On the plus side for the industry is the fact that state regulatory policies require utilities to allow the safe connection of solar installations to the power grid.

"There is clearly an expectation for the utilities to become more accommodating toward solar," said John Carroll, spokesman for Avangrid, a company whose subsidiaries include two upstate utilities, NYSEG and Rochester Gas and Electric.

Carroll noted the New York utilities are working with solar developers to help them streamline projects "that have high value to the grid."

Sandbank said NYSERDA has produced a guidebook that is intended to answer many of the questions that municipal officials and residents are likely to have when contemplating solar projects.

The state's efforts to promote more solar energy production in New York comes at a time when consumer support for clean power is increasing.

A Pew Research Survey released in October said 89 percent of U.S. adults approve of expanding use of solar power, with majorities from across the political spectrum backing the renewable energy source.

And while Pew found that only 4 percent of homeowners have installed solar panels, a much higher number, 40 percent, reported they have been giving serious consideration to investing in the technology.

As more and more towns tackle applications for solar developments, NY-SUN has produced a guidebook for municipal officials charged with crafting land-use policies and considering the revenue implications for their communities from their decisions. The guidebook can be accessed from this state web page: https://www.nyserda.ny.gov/SolarGuidebook.

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