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Cohoes Proposes $5.9 Million 'Floating Solar' Project For Reservoir

Cohoes Reservoir
Jesse King
Congressman Paul Tonko joined Cohoes Mayor Bill Keeler and others involved with the proposal on Tuesday.

The city of Cohoes in Albany County is proposing a $5.9 million solar panel project to float on its water reservoir. The 3.2 MWdc “floating solar” project is part of an effort by Cohoes to lessen its annual $660,000 electricity bill and transition all of its municipal facilities to solar energy. Outside the reservoir, Democratic Mayor Bill Keeler said the 10-acre site by the Cohoes Filtration Plant would not only achieve that goal, but a whole lot more. 

“Not only will it create jobs, but it’ll generate power," Keeler notes. "We’ve talked about education tourism, and the research that may spark even more green innovation in the future.”

Specifically, the city says the project would cover about two-thirds of the reservoir – 8,000 panels – and produce 4,153,000 KWHrs in its first year. 60 percent of its capacity would cover the city’s needs, while the remaining 40 percent could address what the city describes as “additional economic/environmental justice issues within our community.” The city also plans to use the space as an educational site, with a viewing platform along the reservoir for students.  

But why pick the reservoir? Why use floating panels?

Richard Heller certainly hopes more cities will go this route. He’s with the company U.S. Floating Solar and says it all comes down to saving space.

“I’ve been involved in solar for a long time. I was starting to hear rumblings of people who were giving me pushback about ‘Why are you taking up our fertile farmland? Why are you ripping down our forest?’" Heller explains. "Well, we’re here today with floating solar as a new market that is taking an existing asset and leveraging value for it.”

Heller says the idea is still getting its footing in the U.S., but it’s already popular overseas. He estimates roughly 3GW of floating solar will be installed worldwide by the end of the year. In 2018, researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory said the U.S. could generate 10 percent of its annual electricity via floating solar, with more than 24,000 human-made reservoirs nationwide.

If developed, the Cohoes project would be one of the largest installations in the country. Democratic Congressman Paul Tonko hopes Cohoes can serve as a model, particularly for its neighbors.     

“Already I’ve had local communities in the 20th Congressional district saying, ‘What’s going on in Cohoes?’" says Tonko. "It’s green energy, it cuts costs for taxpayers and ratepayers, it’s locally generated, it reduces stress on the system of distributing and transmitting that electricity – and then finally, the reserve, the leftover, can connect to the entire cause of environmental justice.”

If Cohoes has its way, the project will also be the first city-owned and operated floating solar project in the country. Keeler says municipalities typically use lease or power purchase agreements to avoid up-front costs in energy projects  – but in the long run, the best way to maximize savings is to own it.

Tonko is pushing for nearly $4.8 million in federal funding for the installation, and says he hopes to receive an answer by late summer or early fall. Keeler says the city is seeking grants for the rest.

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."