After five years of huge growth in the Capital Region, solar power is poised for further expansion as area installers add staff and move forward under long-awaited regulatory changes issued this past week by the state.
One local company doubled its business last year, another is doubling its staff this year, and both are optimistic that the solar-friendly environment in New York will continue as the method of reimbursing solar power producers is revamped.
The new rules are the latest step in a long-running effort to boost use of solar and other sources of clean energy in New York. The most important change is that net-metering — utilities reducing the electric bills of solar panel owners for every watt of solar electricity they send into the power grid — with a system that assigns a subjective value to the electricity produced by solar panels and other small non-polluting power generators.
How that value is calculated will determine how favorable the new rules are to the solar industry, which has skyrocketed in New York under favorable financial and regulatory conditions here.
In the Capital Region between December 2011 and December 2016, the number of solar installations -- everything from hundreds of panels in rows on a field to a few panels on top of a garage -- increased from 991 to 8,365. The rated power capacity of these projects increased from 9.9 million watts to 113.3 million.
Statewide at the end of 2016, there were 64,926 solar installations, a 615 percent increase over the five-year period. Long Island, where electricity is expensive, led the state both in number of installations and megawatts.
It’s a remarkably strong pattern of growth.
Three Capital Region solar power companies that spoke to The Gazette have been part of this strong growth and expect to continue to benefit under the new rules:
—Monolith Solar is nearly doubling its workforce to 135; it began training 35 new hires at the beginning of March and will start training 31 more at the end of the month.
—Apex Solar Power has doubled its business in the past year and is up to 120 employees.
—Hudson Solar is optimistic the new rules will allow growth in larger-scale projects such as community solar projects, in which a group of consumers who can’t site solar panels on their own property buy power from a remotely located solar farm.
Boosting these projects, officially called community distributed generation, is a stated goal of the new regulations. The state’s announcement Thursday indicated there are 70 such projects in the proposal stage that will benefit from the changes.
THE NEW RULES
The state Department of Public Service, which regulates electrical utilities in New York, approved the new compensation structure for the electricity generated by small clean-energy systems on Thursday after many months of deliberations and consultation with the affected industries.
Valessa Souter-Kline of the New York Solar Energy Industries Association said the NYSEIA has been closely involved in creation of the new payment structure, meeting monthly with the PSC for nearly a year.
During the last year, solar industry employment in New York state shrank by 1 percent and grew in other states, and she said the decrease here was likely due in part to solar companies’ unwillingness to commit to projects and hiring until they saw the new regulations.
The broad points of Thursday’s change were applauded by environmental advocacy groups but the details were still being digested by industry groups, as the actual ruling stretches more than 150 pages (plus five appendices).
Some key aspects of the new regulatory structure:
—Net metering is being replaced, but not for previously installed solar installations and not for small residential and commercial solar installations that come online through the end of 2019.
—A compensation structure will be established for installation of batteries and other systems that store energy during the day for use at night, when solar panels are idle.
—Financial impact on non-solar customers within a utility system will be controlled so they don’t wind up heavily subsidizing solar power through their bills.
—Participation in community distributed generation projects will become easier.
—Instead of net metering, payments for clean energy will be based on a value assigned in part for its benefit to the local community, to the power grid and to society.
How that value is assigned is the crucial detail for the solar power industry.
“It's very important question,” said Souter-Kline. “It’s a very hard question to answer.”
She’s optimistic the answer will be favorable.
“New York has been a leader in solar development,” she said. “It is a great state and an innovative state.”
One of her counterparts at the national level, Sean Gallagher of the Solar Energy Industries Association, said New York has been among the strongest supporters of solar power among any of the state governments, and he doesn’t expect that to change as the new rules are put in place.
“This is another step toward the governor's vision of a cleaner energy future,” he said Thursday from California. “So we’re really appreciative of the vision and the effort and the focus.”
Along with regulatory support there has been financial support from Albany: the $1 billion NY-Sun initiative, boosting public-private efforts to accelerate solar installations and create a self-sustaining solar market.
OUT IN THE FIELD
Monolith Solar earlier this year issued a call to fill 66 jobs and got about 1,500 applications (no doubt due to the salary figures advertised, which range up to $70,000 a year for skilled and experienced workers). The company is now training the people it hired at SUNY Polytechnic Institute’s Solar Energy Development Center in Halfmoon.
Spokesman Tim Szablewski said the reason for the hiring was simple: Monolith has a backlog of orders that would take up to three years to complete with the company’s current workforce.
He said the company has doubled in size every year for the eight years it has existed and expects continued growth because of the thinning ranks of competitors in New York.
“We did a really great job selling a lot of projects,” he said.
“Our portfolio is massive at this point.”
Monolith works mostly with commercial and municipal clients rather than residential. The scale of the projects and the money involved can be substantial: Szablewski said a recent installation in Amsterdam will save that city $45,000 in its first year of operation and more every year thereafter. The new solar array Monolith started installing last week on the roof of Troy’s Knickerbocker Ice Arena is expected to save the city more than $4 million over 20 years, he said.
Monolith is now working as far west as Buffalo, has opened a satellite office in Syracuse and is building a new $4.6 million headquarters in Slingerlands. And it’s forging ahead without a lot of worries about changes at the state and federal levels because the technology has become too popular and economical for a government to ignore or sidetrack, Szablewski said.
“You can’t really stop it at this point,” he said. “People are aware, and you can’t really silence that kind of knowledge.”
Apex Solar President Stan Dobert said while the industry is growing, some companies are not growing with it, due to failed strategies.
“There's many national companies that were going with the wrong model,” he said, offering customers a leased power agreement that cut their electric bills by some fraction but never gave them ownership of the equipment.
“It's funny because all these big companies went out of business. They’re all gone, and we’re left servicing their contracts.”
Apex, which mostly does residential installations, measures how much electricity a household uses per year, designs and installs a system that creates that much electricity, and sells it outright to the homeowner.
The disappearing electric bill is a great selling point.
“Our business is just screaming,” Dobert said.
Queensbury-based Apex works in all of New York state and the four closest New England states, but its biggest market is right in the Capital Region.
“Albany is just kind of like a tech hotbed, people are aware” of the possibilities here, Dobert explained.
Jeff Irish, president and founder of Hudson Solar, said worries about what a carbon-friendly Congress and president might do to the solar industry are misplaced.
The main boost or impediment to solar comes at the state level, through regulations, Irish said. “New York state has been consistently supportive over the 15 years I’ve been running Hudson Solar,” he said. “They've been very adaptable to changing market conditions.”
The federal government does offer a 30 percent tax credit for solar installations that’s popular with customers, but that was passed with bipartisan support, so there may not be a partisan rush to repeal it, Irish said, nor any real need to repeal it, because it starts to sunset in 2020.
Irish also noted that solar power provides a lot of jobs -- 260,000 nationwide by the Solar Foundation’s latest census, 8,135 in New York -- so hurting the industry would run counter to the goal of creating jobs that every politician embraces.
“I'm optimistic,” Irish said. “Being in the solar industry means you have to be constantly ready to change because it’s an evolving industry.”
Hudson Solar is based in Rhinebeck and has a satellite office in Colonie. It works in the Hudson Valley from Orange County to Warren County and as far west as Schoharie County.
Irish said he’s hoping the new state regulations will ease the way for larger-scale projects, which now face hurdles, including zoning or land-use approvals and utility interconnection delays, that don’t typically affect smaller residential or commercial installations.
This would ease the way for community solar power projects, which give people who can’t fit or can’t afford solar panels a chance to buy solar power.
“It’s an exciting concept because it could help serve low- to moderate-income people,” he said.
Megawatts of installed solar power generating capacity in Capital Region counties as of Dec. 31:
SOURCE: NEW YORK STATE