Joining forces to bring more solar energy to Saugerties

SolarAre you like me, ever so slightly confused by all the clean and renewable energy options? Wind, hydro, solar, geothermal! Fossil fuels are on the way out, but what exactly is the way forward for me, in my particular circumstances, in my particular house or business? Should I plan as an individual or as a member of a community? This cloudy crystal ball is clearing up fast and what we can do in Saugerties is about to be revealed, thanks to the initializing efforts of Saugerties residents Mary O’Donnell and Vernon Benjamin, in two separate and current projects.

We’re all going to have to make this transition— and not only to save the planet from the kind of degradation caused by the air and water pollution, not to mention the increasingly frequent catastrophic climate events that result from extracting and burning fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are losing their competitive edge anyway as renewables increase their share of the energy market. In several European countries, renewables are producing energy less expensively than fossil fuels. And a few global banks, including Bank of America and Citigroup, have announced they are withdrawing support to coal mining. The handwriting is on all the walls.

When O’Donnell, a member of the Saugerties Town Board’s Conservation Advisory Commission (CAC) as well as the Ulster County Environmental Management Council, saw a presentation by Catskill Mountainkeeper (a co-sponsor, along with Sustainable Hudson Valley, of Solarize Hudson Valley), she organized an informational event, co-sponsored by the CAC and Sustainable Saugerties, last week at the Senior Center to outline the steps we in Saugerties would need to take to roll out a Solarize Saugerties campaign, hopefully to start in mid-February.

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The meeting was attended by town officials, representatives of community organizations and interested homeowners. Saugerties is being recruited to join Solarize Hudson Valley (SHV) with a local outreach campaign, following the establishment of Solarize campaigns in Kingston, Woodstock and Rosendale. The CAC has voted to advise the Town Board to support a Solarize Saugerties campaign, O’Donnell reports.

Presenter Melissa Everett, director of Sustainable Hudson Valley, explained at last week’s event that Solarize Saugerties is an excellent way to get on the right side of this trend, and the time is now if you’re a candidate for rooftop solar. Federal tax credits will continue through 2016 but are expected to expire at the end of next year; New York state tax credits, while beginning to decline, are still substantial. The Solarize campaigns make rooftop solar easy and more affordable by doing a lot of the homework for prospective customers. Local installers are selected by a local coordinating committee from a group of NYSERDA-approved companies. Assessment of individual sites is free and the financing options are demystified. Discounts on installation of 10-15 percent are offered to all who contract for installation during the period of the campaign; the more contracts, the deeper the discounts. For homeowners and businesses for whom rooftop solar makes sense (people with a receptive rooftop, good enough credit to finance installation and a tax bracket that makes tax credits appealing), it makes a lot of sense.

O’Donnell is in the process, which must be completed quickly if the February rollout is to happen, of putting together a coordinating committee to apply for Saugerties to become a Solarize town. Following some strategy meetings in late November and early December, their commitment would run from January through June, with an anticipated 3-5 hours per week required from committee members, who would be trained by SHV in January and would then promote as well as facilitate workshops (one every few weeks) for the public for the 4½ month run of the campaign. The committee needs to come together quickly if Saugerties is to take advantage of the next outreach window. While John Wackman, coordinator of Solarize Hudson Valley, says that any resident of Ulster County can take advantage of any Solarize campaign within the county (Woodstock and Rosendale being the two currently open), we would get much more participation with a campaign run by residents of Saugerties and focused on residents of Saugerties. If you’d like to learn more about getting involved in the organizing effort, contact Mary O’Donnell at codon9@aol.com right away.

This isn’t the only significant thing happening in Saugerties on the solar energy front. The Town Board is also considering a bid for a privately-financed “solar farm” to be sited in the industrial zone on Malden Turnpike and dedicated to supplying power to municipal and other public customers in Saugerties at rates lower than are now being paid.

There is no expense to the town or its taxpayers for this project, referred to informally as “community cogeneration” by Vernon Benjamin, who prepared and coordinated the bid process for the town. Economy of scale is the goal here; a solar farm with a community of users can generate up to two million megawatts and supply dozens of meters. On board are the Town Hall, the senior citizens center, various Memorial Field meters, and the sewer, water, and lighting districts, among others. A panel used to evaluate the solar bids recommended East Light Solar of Boston to create the new utility. The project might be able to include other customers once the total number of municipal/public customers is final.

If you’re neither a municipal meter nor a good candidate for rooftop solar, what then are your clean, renewable options? For one thing, we can hope that either Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) or Community Generated Distribution (CGD) will be available to more of us in the near future. If you read my recent column on CCA, you already know that among its possibilities would be a scheme through which municipalities would build out renewable infrastructure and sell it (at not-for-profit rates) to their communities, generally using the existing distribution lines. This is already in the works in Rosendale. CGD resembles the “community cogeneration” model developed independently in Saugerties. It’s privately financed and focuses on solar farm build-outs. Both CCA and CDG are community-wide power supply models.

Jen Metzger, co-director of Citizens for Local Power, updated me on Citizens for Local Power (CLP), the local advocate for CCA. CLP is hoping to be awarded a $1,300 grant to do in-depth analysis of pinpointed energy needs in the Hudson Valley in order to collect data needed to implement broader community energy infrastructure. Metzger’s fellow board member Betta Broad, also an initiating organizer of Solarize Hudson Valley, discussed CDG as another front where CLP is hoping to inspire and facilitate action. It could be available to commercial and residential consumers who can muster up sufficient organization, as it requires a minimum number of meters to attract a solar farm builder. Citizens for Local Power will be holding a series of monthly breakfast meeting beginning next month. Information is available on their website.

The conversation in Saugerties has started, and everyone in this alphabet soup of plans, programs, and policies is contributing to the overall transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy. Concern about the environment and the increasingly untenable position of the utility companies that currently supply our power have moved the state of New York to push renewables forward in a variety of ways through the REV (Renew the Energy Vision) program. It’s time for us as consumers and citizens to inform ourselves and move into the future, secure that we are contributing to the solution instead of the problem.

More information is available at www.solarize-hudsonvalley.org.

Janet Asiain’s column appears monthly.