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Solar Leads Alternative Energy Choices

WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

The quest for cheaper energy on the consumer level trails back to the late 1970s, when solar appeared to be positioning to become a major player in power generation. Alternative power may get a boost from the advent of so-called "community grids.”

Many hospitals, colleges and other entities have developed their own power systems.  Some, like Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, are able to operate independently of the commercial electric grid.  There's also the off-grid "plug power" model where a "cube" can be placed in a home to power a household for about a year.

Gil Quiniones, President and CEO of the New York Power Authority, was at the SUNY Poly campus in Albany Wednesday, touting building a network of locally-based microgrids — and an accelerator program called the "New York Prize."     "The state has put aside $40 million and challenged communities to be imaginative and to propose to us community grids or microgrids to make sure that we evolve our current grid to the future grid, which is more distributed, and that communities and individuals can have more control of the energy that they use."

Quiniones pointed out that New York households spend nearly $2,500 per year on energy, some of the highest rates in the country. Commercial electric rates have been rising. The community grid would take the economic burden off business and residential customers by refashioning the state’s energy infrastructure. He noted that New York led electric innovation with inventions by Edison and Tesla.  And he said there's no reason we can't do it again.  "It could be solar. It could be combined heat and power. It could be battery storage. Really putting control - more control - of the production of electricity and the distribution of electricity in the communities."

The solar industry is booming, mentioned in both the State of the State and the State of the Union.  President Obama proclaimed that there is as much solar being installed every three weeks as there was in 2008 in its entirety.

Steve Erby is Vice President of Monlith Solar Associates in Rensselaer. He says consumers have discovered sun power saves money and protects the environment.  "With the power of the internet and the ability to go online and find out exactly how powerful these systems are, is amazing. And I think that's what's getting people on board with the solar, is that every one of our systems is hooked to the internet, so they can, at any given moment, see exactly how much power is coming from the roof. And it's a great feeling. Once you go solar, you get bit by this 'energy bug,' if you will, and you realize that flipping a switch, this power doesn't magically come from someplace. Now you start to realize the impact that a new freezer will have or the television set left on all day is gonna impact on your bill, and people become more energy aware."

John Moynihan is managing director of Cohen power technologies.  Their Utica facility took two years to build. Burrstone Energy Center is a microgrid that helps to power Utica College, St. Luke's Healthcare and nursing home, saving 15 to 20 percent a year on utility costs.   "We built this very modest 100-by-60 foot metal building and we put 3.6 megawatts of gas engines in it. And what we do is we take power all underground lines, so we're not subject to ice storms and wind, and occasionally a drunk college kid might hit a pole, you know, it's been happened before. We're not subject to that. We aggregated five electric services from National Grid down to one for the college."

But there is one drawback: as you heard, the Utica microgrid is powered by engines fueled with natural gas. Although the lines are buried, there's always the chance a pipe could break, and always the possibility that the supply-demand rules could one day shift pricing to a place that would make returning to the larger grid more cost-effective, bolstering the argument for solar and wind power as more viable alternatives over time.

John Saintcross, Assistant Director of Smart Grid R&D and the NY Prize competition at NYSERDA, sees 2015 as a good time for consumers to explore alternative energy sources and for government to review existing energy policy.  "When you look at the electric rates we pay, when you look at the storm issues and you look at the advances of technology, maybe it's time to rethink how we're going to ---  what's the energy paradigm gonna look like next 20 years. Get the customers a little more engaged, and less passive in terms of how they're dealing with energy, and they can do that now with advances in technology."

Erby believes the switch to sunshine is already on.  "People see that solar power not only works, but it pays for itself, and I'm gonna own my own power source and I'll never be burdened by the fluctuations in the market ever again."

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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