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New York’s Solar State of Mind: Resilience through community engagement

By Alexandra Longo

When the New York State Public Service Commission announced its Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) initiative 14 months ago, the Empire State vaulted to the top of the list of states to watch for ambitious plans to transform the way energy is produced, distributed and used.

But New York is making a mark as well in its creative efforts to specifically encourage the growth of solar. Unlike many of the leading solar markets in the United States, New York is relying less on financial tools — such as incentives and state tax credits — and more on transformation by information.

This strategy came out clearly during the ninth annual New York Solar Summit on June 10 in New York City. Organized by City University of New York (CUNY), the summit featured compelling insights into the state’s ongoing efforts to advance solar energy and make it a mainstream power source.

For example, the state is focusing a range of innovative initiative and tools aimed at engaging communities in the process of solar deployment, thereby cultivating a base of informed solar consumers who will help build and maintain a thriving solar industry.

Initiatives showcased at the summit included:

The New York State Solar Map: To be launched in September, this statewide web portal grew out of the successful NYC Solar Map, which has been online since 2011. Sustainable CUNY developed both maps. Like its predecessor, the new expanded portal includes a solar potential calculator, which informs customers of their communities’ solar capacity. Consumers can also use it to estimate their costs, incentives and savings and connect with local installers.

On the installer side, the portal offers localized information and guides for installations.

Solar and grid resiliency: Almost three years after Hurricane Sandy tore into the Mid-Atlantic — leaving more than two million New Yorkers without power for days and costing the state tens of billions of dollars in damages — the storm’s impact continues to influence the state’s future energy plans. Two initiatives discussed at the Summit, the NYC Grid-Ready Project and the Smart Distributed Generation (DG)-Hub Resilient Project, promote solar deployment as a key part of the effort to build grid resiliency.

A partnership effort by CUNY, Con Edison and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the NYC Grid-Ready Project is designed to identify buildings in the city with solar potential and reduce technical and financial obstacles for solar developers. A specific project focus is zeroing in on potential interconnection issues to help installers make smart decisions that will lower their costs and benefit the grid.

Jim Skillman, Customer Project Manager, DG at Con Edison, noted the impressive growth of solar in the city over the past several years, driven by ever-lower PV system costs, third-party financing options, and balance of systems cost reductions. Skillman believes the Grid-Ready Solar Project will benefit both customers and installers, and support a more efficient solar marketplace.

As its name suggests, the Smart DG-Hub Resilient Project is targeted at integrating an analysis of new solar projects’ resiliency potential into development decisions. With funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, the project will add a “resiliency calculator” to the New York State Solar Map. It will also create a resiliency roadmap that will address key policy, financial and other factors for improving resiliency through solar and storage projects and also track new projects as they come online, providing up-to-date information for utilities and city planners.

NY-Sun: Launched by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2012, the NY-Sun initiative is arguably the state’s most comprehensive effort to build community engagement for solar deployment with a range of well-funded incentives and group purchasing efforts. In a morning keynote at the summit, John Rhodes, President and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) reported that to date NY-Sun has created 7,000 new jobs and reduced solar “soft costs” through programs such as K-Solar, which provides state school districts with free solar installations.

Also from NYSERDA, Max Joel, Program Manager for Community Solar NY, talked about the program’s Solarize model, which is basically a community-based group-buying effort. As defined on the NY-Sun website, “Solarize campaigns are locally-organized community outreach efforts aimed at getting a critical mass of area homes and businesses to install solar.”

NYSERDA provides technical, funding and market assistance, Joel said, but Solarize campaigns are based on communities taking the leading role in the deployment process. Since 2013, campaigns have been launched in regions across the state.

In Syracuse, for example, a Solarize campaign launched in July 2014 more than doubled the amount of residential solar installed in the region in its first four months, according to the NY-Sun website.

The focus on stakeholder engagement — and the diverse approaches to achieving that goal — provided a common thread running through these and other efforts discussed at the summit. Utilities, government agencies, research organizations and communities are all involved and have each played a unique role in New York’s solar success.

Alexandra Longo is an education associate at the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA). She can be reached at [email protected].