Enough sunshine hits the United States that in just one hour around midday, enough energy could be produced to sustain all of the nation’s annual electricity demand, according to a federal study.
Just about every area of the contiguous United States gets enough sun to make large-scale solar projects feasible, according to the Sunshot Vision Study, released by the Department of Energy last year. Yet harnessing the power of the sun seemed to take a back seat to other renewable resources — especially in the Northeast.
Not anymore. Government incentives, along with lower costs for photovoltaic cells, have led to a marked upswing in large-scale solar development projects.
Solar projects are now being considered by some of the state’s large energy consumers. Businesses and institutions that once viewed solar energy as cost-prohibitive are now turning to it as a cost-effective investment that will pay dividends in cheap energy for years into the future.
“It really just recently became a viable option,” said Maria D’Amelia, a spokeswoman for Stewart’s Shops, which recently completed a 600-kilowatt solar array on the rooftop of its shop services building on Route 9N near Saratoga Springs. “It was something we had been looking at for a while, but we couldn’t make the math work.”
Then Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s NY-Sun initiative became reality in 2012. The public-private partnership is aimed at driving growth in the marketplace through financial incentives while simultaneously streamlining regulations to reduce the cost of solar developments.
“Not only will these projects benefit our environment by reducing dependence on fossil fuels and using renewable energy, but they are also creating well-paying jobs for New Yorkers,” Cuomo said after announcing a second round of awards for NY-Sun projects in July. “These are necessary investments for a bright future in our state.”
76 projects and counting
Cuomo’s initiative spurred 76 large-scale solar projects in 33 counties across the state in 2012, including eight in the Capital Region. With each project generating 200 kilowatts of electricity or more, New York has added roughly 52 megawatts of solar capacity to its energy portfolio, according to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which oversees the program.
That’s just the beginning. NY-Sun continued this year and will soon bring an additional 79 projects online, including 10 more large-scale solar developments in the Capital Region.
NYSERDA is providing nearly $100 million in grants during the first two rounds of the program. Once those projects are completed, the program will have added 299 megawatts of solar capacity to the state’s 37,920 megawatts of total capacity for power generation.
Kate Muller, a spokeswoman for NYSERDA, said the state’s investment in solar power helps businesses and residents by reducing their utility costs while simultaneously protecting the environment. She said the large-scale projects are adding resiliency to the grid, including in places with high demand for power, such as New York City.
“Through the NY-Sun initiative, the state is developing a robust solar industry that is creating jobs, strengthening the reliability of the electric grid and protecting the environment,” she said.
Aiding the program is the decline in cost for solar materials over the past two years, which has allowed NYSERDA to stretch grant funding across many more businesses and institutions. The average incentive has dropped from $1.30 per watt at the inception of the program to 84 cents per watt for the grants awarded last summer — about a 31 percent drop.
Projects produce energy that is pumped back into the grid for energy credits. Companies and institutions participating in the program get the benefit of cheap energy.
For a company like Stewart’s, this cheap energy can pay for the investment in short order. The plant’s 2,405 photovoltaic panels are expected to produce 620,000 kilowatt-hours a year, which will supply about 7.5 percent of its energy needs.
With state funding and a federal tax incentive, Stewart’s will end up paying about $600,000 of the original $1.4 million cost to construct the solar field. In energy costs alone, the company anticipates saving roughly $40,000 annually.
“Though it’s a fairly small fraction of electricity we need over the course of the year, it is enough of an impact to make it viable,” D’Amelia said.
Other companies are taking a far more ambitious approach toward solar development. In Albany County, Owens Corning is putting the finishing touches on a 2.6-megawatt solar generation array at its thermal and acoustical insulation plant in Feura Bush.
The company has installed roughly 9,000 ground-mounted photovoltaic panels on nine acres. Once completed this month, the system is expected to generate approximately 3.3 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year — about the energy needed to power 6 percent of the plant.
But don’t be fooled by this seemingly small percentage. Company officials claim the amount of electricity generated by the panels each year would require the release of about 2,339 metric tons of carbon dioxide if generated by nonrenewable sources — the equivalent emissions of 487 passenger vehicles annually.
“We are proud to be part of this project as we continually strive to effectively meet the needs of the present without compromising the world we leave in the future,” said Kelly Donaghy, a spokeswoman for the company.
An even more ambitious project through NY-Sun is slated for 8 acres of land in Greenfield owned by Skidmore College. If approved and built, the 2,084-megawatt photovoltaic project would generate about 2.6 million kilowatt-hours per year, accounting for roughly 12 percent of the energy needs for the campus in Saratoga Springs.
Like the plant developed by Owens Corning, Skidmore’s facility would be ground-mounted. The college is proposing to erect 6,950 solar panels on the rear portion of a 120-acre property at the corner of Denton and Bloomfield roads.
College officials claim the energy generated by the panels would be equivalent to eliminating the emissions caused by 383 passenger vehicles annually. The power produced by the 3-by-6-foot panels would create enough electricity to power 2,600 average homes, according to the application submitted to the Greenfield Planning Board earlier this year.
Building the project would show a commitment on the college’s behalf to being responsible stewards of the environment, explained Michael Hall, special assistant to Skidmore’s vice president. And this philosophy dovetails nicely with the message the college tries to impart on its undergraduates.
“Good citizenship and responsible citizenship is a portion of what we want to teach our students through our curriculum,” he said. “Here is an opportunity for us to show the students that we really mean what we say.”
Critics of the project don’t exactly agree. Some believe a massive array of panels will harm the bucolic character of the area.
About 200 residents signed a petition opposing the project, and some called for a town moratorium on large solar developments until regulations could be crafted. Town officials ultimately disagreed and gave the project a favorable declaration under the state Environmental Quality Review Act last month.
Though other approvals are necessary, Hall remains cautiously optimistic. He hopes the project will get final approval this month so the six- to eight-week construction period can begin before November.
“The bottom line is we’re reducing carbon emissions big time with this solar field,” he said. “This is good for what we’re teaching our students, it’s good for the community and it’s good for the world. This is the future.”
Area solar developments are starting to catch the eye of other green-minded businesses. In Mechanicville, DeCrescente Distributing Co. is taking a hard look at the solar incentives being offered by the state and contemplating whether they might be the next step in improving the company’s carbon footprint.
In 2011, DeCrescente did a massive overhaul to help cut down on its energy consumption by using state and utility incentives. Now the company is looking to expand on that work after completing a 45,000-square-foot warehouse addition — perhaps by generating solar electricity.
“We see from a green prospective it’s the right thing to do,” said Russ Teplitzky, the company’s executive vice president and general manager. “Now there are incentives making it attractive.”