This has been a remarkable fall for the attention paid to solar power on the local level. Solarize Saugerties has come to town offering a great way for homeowners and small businesses to install panels and get significant reductions in their electric bills while helping to fight carbon overload in the process. In addition, new state policies are opening doors to even wider applications of solar.
It’s a part of the Renew the Energy Vision (REV) program that Gov. Cuomo put forth last year. The idea was to find ways to cut electric costs for consumers across the board, increase clean energy generation and support local energy in particular, and expand distributed energy resources. The panels are in that “distributed energy resources” (DER) category.
Solarize Saugerties is on the individual property owner level — 200 kilowatts or less. Under this program, participants have costs in the panels and the hardware, but they save money by using the same contractor firm and by taking advantage of federal and state tax credits. Their electric bills are reduced to practically nothing. They own their own system — they are their own utility in a sense.
Locally, the town’s Conservation Advisory Commission is spearheading the project under Mary O’Donnell. Sustainable Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountainkeeper are the local agencies helping to move it along. Skip Arthur had a great letter in to Saugerties Times about it last week, and there’s been buzz around town about it since they came to town a month ago.
That’s on the homeowner and small business level. A complementary model is what the town is doing with the solar farm project that was approved by the Town Board on Nov. 4. A bid was awarded to a Boston company that will come into the Malden industrial zone and set up solar for almost all of the town’s electric bills, as well as the lighting districts, fire departments, ambulance and library—more than 60 meters, up to three million kilowatts of power.
The town is also modifying its zoning ordinance to allow for solar applications on parcels of 20 acres or more (if suitable) in the moderate density zone. Up to now, they have only been allowed in the industrial and light industrial zones. This will help to usher in “community cogeneration,” another key component of the REV, which will allow other property owners to join as a “community” of consumers. Already local property owners are getting letters from companies looking for land. They are trying to move quickly because the tax credit programs are scheduled to “sunset” at the end of 2016 and they would lose the credits that make solar possible. Efforts are underway in Congress and the state Legislature to extend the credits, but they have not been approved as yet.
Under community generation, if 15 or more electric users agree, a solar array can be installed anywhere they are allowed to provide solar benefits for them. Each meter is an account. The member agrees to allow the new company to in effect become their utility; they will still get bills from Central Hudson, but much smaller ones, and their payments for the kilowatt hours portion of their bills will be reduced according to the agreement they make with the solar company. You don’t have to have the panels on your property, but can benefit by hooking into the new farm’s meter and they will have an interconnection arrangement with Central Hudson to secure the power.
Not all of the ducks are in a row on community cogeneration, however. It is wise to be cautious before agreeing to a long-term land lease or a purchase, and of course consumers should examine closely the terms to make sure they are getting benefits. Any solar project in the town —including the Malden one — must go through a Planning Board site plan review and comply with environmental rules. They are benign and non-intrusive, but it is still wise to be careful.
More information will also be coming out about what consumers should watch for and be sure about before signing on.
Gov. Cuomo is to be thanked for initiating REV, but behind him is a history of changes that have been going on over the years. Central Hudson, for example, was recognized by the solar industry as early as 2008 as a great friend to solar and alternative energy generally. The utility has also been a friend to Saugerties; their interest in putting a solar park in the Mount Marion Enterprise Corridor came about when a vision of that corridor with a major solar farm was first put forth by Saugerties in an architectural rendering to the Greg Helsmoortel Town Hall by green architect Janet Welton.
Central Hudson was the first utility in the state to sign onto the new PSC solar initiatives, and was the only one to dedicate its whole utilize zone to solar applications.
As a staff member with Assemblyman Maurice Hinchey who helped fight the utilities and the Public Service Commission in the 1980s and early ‘90s, my jaw dropped to the floor over the changes that are happening now. What are they thinking! you want to say, but it all has to do with the march of progress. I’m still pinching myself, but believe me — it’s happening. We can save the world!