When I attended the 8th Annual New York Solar Summit, I didn’t know quite what to expect. I anticipated experiencing some variation of the conflicted feelings I’ve felt about solar power over the past few years: optimism at its spectacular growth and popularity, mixed with frustration at how long the process of replacing fossil fuels is taking. As it turned out, I was not far wrong, but there were also quite a few pleasant surprises.
Five interesting themes recurred, in different contexts, throughout the day:
Achieving integration – The main challenge with solar going forward is not connection, but integration: incorporating distributed generation (DG) into the system as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Expanding education – Panelists recognized the need for solar education, both formal and informal (that is, directed toward the consumer).
Lowering Balance of System (BOS) costs – A major priority, all participants agreed, is to bring down solar BOS costs (particularly “soft” BOS): that is, the costs of everything other than the solar panels themselves. Over 60% of the average installation may involve such costs.
Reaching non-traditional customers – Panelists repeatedly mentioned the special challenge of serving non-traditional potential customers, such as hospitals, schools, and underserved communities.
Treating net metering as a beginning, not an end – All agreed that net metering is the start, not the terminus point, of creative responses to DG.
Utilities united with (not against) solar
The first panel of the day, subtitled “A Conversation with Utility Leaders,” might have surprised many in the news media. As moderator Minh Le, Director of the Solar Energy Technologies Office of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), pointed out, the media thrive on conflict, and thus like to play up the clash between solar providers and utilities (e.g., in Arizona). But the reality is that many utilities are working actively to accommodate the changes brought on by the rise of solar, and all the utilities represented by the panel members were examples of this. James Laurito, President of the Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corporation, insisted that it’s a myth that distributed generation (DG) and the grid are “mutually exclusive.”
The utility executives discussed all the summit’s main themes. On the challenge of integration, Mark Lynch, President of both NYSEG and RG&E, remarked, “The distribution grid has to be as ‘smart’ as the transmission grid.” On education, Laurito suggested that the university curriculum be updated to prepare young graduates for this new reality. On soft BOS costs, Le noted that the DOE’s SunShot Initiative aims to reduce solar installation costs by 75% (in cents per kilowatt) by the end of the decade, to make solar completely competitive with coal, nuclear, and oil and gas – without subsidies. On the topic of non-traditional customers, Laurito indicated that community-based solar can serve those who, for various reasons, cannot put solar on their own roofs, and Kenneth Daly, President of National Grid, suggested that different solutions should be found for each location. All were excited about the transformative possibilities of solar – and of utilities – over the next twenty years.
CUNY and NYSolar Smart
Subsequent panels introduced the main topic of the summit: CUNY’s NYSolar Smart initiative. The major achievements of this initiative that the moderators discussed were:
A survey of 61 jurisdictions, carried out by the solar ombudsman
The implementation of a standardized Unified Solar Permitting process
The New York City Solar Map data platforms
Moderator Laurie Reilly, the Communications Director of Sustainable CUNY, pointed out that in 2013, New York became the ninth state in the nation in solar installations and the fifth in solar jobs. She attributed that growth largely to the state’s NY-Sun initiative, implemented in 2012, whose goals are to double annually customer-sited solar power installations and address statewide BOS costs. NYSolar Smart – a partnership with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and the New York Power Authority (NYPA), among many other organizations – has made a particular priority of addressing such costs. After analyzing the survey that it had performed in 61 jurisdictions to determine priorities, the organization developed and began to implement a Unified Solar Permitting process to replace the unstandardized chaos of the existing local permitting processes.
CUNY’s University Director of Sustainability, Tria Case, continued the discussion of NYSolar Smart, which followed its survey and the Unified Solar Permit with the New York City Solar Map data platforms. These showcase existing installations and also function as both a marketing tool for industry and a planning tool for utilities. Case insisted that the city’s economic solar story is “one that needs to be told,” as the sharp rise from 1 MW installed in 2006 to 29.1 MW by April 2014 represents an increase in economic development of $13.1M to $249.4M.The proliferation of solar installations as shown on the NYC Solar Map (a New York State Map is now in the works) is one way to grasp this rapid growth.
Karen Hamilton, Director of Residential Energy Services for NYSERDA, spoke primarily about two subjects:
NYSERDA’s Megawatt (MW) Block Incentive Program
Solar accessibility for low- and moderate-income (LMI) households
For the Block Incentive Program, 3 GW of installed solar is the statewide goal. The program is divided geographically into three regions: Long Island, the Con Ed area (Metro New York), and the rest of the state. Three block tiers exist: residential up to 25kW, non-residential up to 200 kW, and non-residential greater than 200 kW. Each MW block is a specified number of MW to be acquired through incentive applications, with a different incentive associated with each block; when one block is filled, another one starts. The advantages of this system, said Hamilton, are predictability and transparency.
For LMI households, not only do the usual issues of cost and financing come into play, but also the need to educate both individual consumers and entire communities. Stakeholder ideas and proposals for these households have included: a) special financing; b) a portfolio/aggregation approach; c) “Solarize” community-based programs; d) shared solar; e) integration of efficiency and workforce development; and f) education and training.
Grid Ready Solar
Jim Skillman, Con Edison’s Customer Project Manager, Distributed Generation Group, reported surprisingly impressive solar growth in New York City in the short span from November 2013 to the first quarter of 2014. For example, Staten Island alone during this period is projected to add 470 installs, an exponential increase from 77 previously existing installs, and the kilowatts produced from solar in that county to rise almost tenfold, to over 4,500. A program called Grid Ready Solar, a collaboration with CUNY, will analyze risk factors for grid interconnection in New York City and create a public database that will help developers make informed decisions. The benefits of Grid Ready Solar, according to Skillman, are: 1) as a financial analysis tool; 2) to allow utility concerns to be known upfront; 3) to create useful data for both installers and customers; and 4) as a tool for driving a smarter and more efficient solar workplace.
Alternative financing options
Four presenters discussed creative solar financing options:
Jessica Aldridge explained the NY Green Bank, a state-sponsored investment fund designed to dramatically increase deployment of commercially proven clean energy technologies. The bank works in conjunction (not in competition) with the private sector to provide financial resources, expertise, and objective information, allowing New Yorkers to make confident, informed energy decisions.
Jessie Denver of Vote Solar’s Group Energy Program described how her organization offers a discounted price for solar by pooling the power of groups. In summer 2014, the program will launch with CUNY, through a NYSERDA grant, NYSolar Smart SunShares in two areas – the New York metropolitan area and the Capital (Albany) District.
David Sandbank of NYSEIA presented various case studies of New York area solar installations, describing the many complex financing challenges based on location, size, and other factors.
Jeff Irvine of Sustainable CUNY spoke about the Solarize program, which reduces the costs of solar power by leveraging the collective purchasing power of groups. Solarize is a proven model, Irvine said, with versions in Raleigh, Santa Barbara, and Portland, among other places. The Community Board 6 (CB6) neighborhoods of Brooklyn will receive the latest version – NYSolar Smart Solarize has scheduled installation there for the Fall of 2014.
An integrating solar network
The impression I took away from the event was of a highly complex network of organizations – federal government (DOE), state government (NY-Sun, NYSERDA), independent solar organizations (NYSEIA), local utilities (Con Ed, NYPA), and universities (Sustainable CUNY) – all seeking viable and creative ways to collaborate with one another as effectively as possible, and all totally committed to growing solar power in New York. The challenge of integration for solar in New York, therefore, exists not merely on a technical or economic plane, but on the human and organizational level. I came away with new reasons to hope, and much to think about.
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