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Unclear Future For Solar Energy Customers In New York

WAMC Composite Photo by Dave Lucas

Last Tuesday, the New York state Assembly voted to reestablish net metering of community solar power. The bill did not pass I the Senate before the legislative session ended later in the week. The value of solar has now become a major issue.

Green advocates say New York's growing solar industry has been crippled by a recent change to state policy that upends net metering for new community solar projects and reduces the value of the energy produced by those solar panels.

Chris Carrick is Energy Program Manager at the Central New York Regional Planning and Development Board.   "Several years ago the governor opened up a policy called 'community solar,' which allows customers to use solar energy if they cannot install solar panels on their property for whatever reason. And when this policy was announced governor said that this would make solar available to tall New Yorkers regardless of income or zip code, and the industry and community advocates were very excited about that opportunity because up to 70 percent of individuals in any community cannot install the panels on their own property."

Under New York's original net-metering law enacted in 1997, customers could buy energy from solar arrays located elsewhere. In September 2017, the state Public Service Commission re-evaluated the measure, deciding to go with "Value of Distributed Energy Resources," or VDER.

Bob Rossi, who heads the New York Sustainable Business Council, believes that has slowed new solar installations and short-circuited several community solar projects in New York.  "Under net metering it was essentially just a one-to-one. When you sell energy back to the grid you would get that retail rate, so investment in solar, it was easier to do the calculus on that. People could look at their long-term investment based on what they would expect energy rates to be. Moving forward, under VDER that is no longer a... it's not even that it's a more complex formula, it's not a transparent formula. You need to apply, based on a bunch of information including the location, the size of the project, you're going get a rate of return, and that rate might change as the PSC re-evaluates and re-establishes the formula every few years. In our experience with the solar installers in our networks, they're no longer able to get investments on projects because of that complexity."

The bill that failed in the Senate would have put VDER on hold for three years. Activists argue this has already cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in investment, hindered renters from being able to benefit from solar power, and jeopardized the jobs of 9,000 New Yorkers employed in the solar industry.  "What we could like to see is a moratorium on the rollout of VDER, and for the Public Service Commission to hold a public hearing to receive input from everyone from business leaders to residents on this regulation and to address that in a new rollout." 

Again, Chris Carrick:   "The governor could address this problem immediately by directing the commission to do what was outlined in the legislation. That would allow developers to go under either the former policy or the current VDER policy, depending on which one makes sense for their particular project."

A call to Governor Andrew Cuomo's office to gauge whether the governor might order the PSC to act was returned via email a few hours after this story was broadcast. It reads:

“We will review the bill as we continue to engage all stakeholders as we push forward to achieve the Governor’s 50% renewable energy by 2030.”

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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