Dec. 09--Big Oil and Big Gas, meet Big Solar. Momentum is building for dozens of proposed mid-Hudson solar farms as locals join other New Yorkers signing up for solar credits to offset their electric bills.
The New York Public Service Commission powered the solar boom by allowing community net metering in July 2015. That and other rule changes were encouraged by Gov. Andrew Cuomo's NY-Sun, Reforming the Energy Vision plan and the Shared Renewables Program, which aim to increase the state's shared renewable energy production to 50 percent by 2030 from 24 percent in 2016.
"New York regulators have put a whole suite of policies in place to promote solar energy, including a megawatt block incentive program, and they've really worked on reducing the soft costs associated with installing solar," said Dave Gahl of the industry's leading trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Previously, only home and business owners could install solar panels on their properties to qualify for retail rate reimbursements. Now, anyone with an electric bill, including renters, can buy electric power from a solar farm. Roughly 13 solar farms are currently proposed for Orange County, with 11 each planned for Sullivan and Ulster counties.
The solar plants attempting to open in the service territories for Orange & Rockland and Central Hudson Gas & Electric will be allowed to generate up to 123 megawatts of new solar electric capacity. At 165 homes per megawatt, that's enough electricity to power 20,300 residences.
"There was a barrier to community solar in the past because you couldn't get any sort of financial incentive for participating," said Katherine Nadeau of the Livingston Manor nonprofit Catskill Mountainkeeper, which is helping locals sign up with solar farms. "If you produced more solar energy than you used, there was no way to sell the energy back to the grid."
So far, Catskill Mountainkeeper is working with two privately held companies in the mid-Hudson. Boston-based NexAmp, Inc. is constructing a solar farm in Wawayanda to serve Orange & Rockland customers and another in Wappingers Falls that would produce energy for Central Hudson users in and around Ulster County.
Delaware River Solar, of the Town of Callicoon, has 15 solar farms in various stages of development to serve New York State Electric and Gas customers in Sullivan County. Two projects are permitted for construction in the Town of Delaware and one is ready to be built in the Town of Liberty.
"It's rare when you can do something where there's an economic benefit and an environmental benefit. It's exciting for us to marry those two," said Rich Winter, CEO and majority owner of Delaware River Solar.
Delaware River Solar and NexAmp are respectively offering 10 percent annual discounts on consumers' electric bills. Delaware River Solar's discounts are based on market rates for electricity, while NexAmp goes by a consumer's past energy use.
After customers sign up with solar farms, the companies coordinate with local utilities, which credit users' monthly electric bills. Delaware River Solar estimates that its customers need to use at least 1,000 kilowatts annually to benefit from the savings. The average home uses roughly 7,500 kilowatts per year.
"The fact that I can sign up and get a guaranteed discount of 10 percent off my electric bill is just a no-brainer, and there are no cancellation fees, and no sign-up fees," said Samrat Pathania, 36, of the Town of Rosendale, who recently signed up with NexAmp.
While some consumers are celebrating, the solar boom has caught many New York municipalities off guard, with nearly 90, including Goshen, enacting moratoriums in 2016 until they could come up with solar farm rules, according to Rochester's Democrat & Chronicle. Goshen swiftly ended its moratorium and enacted solar and wind regulations toward the end of last year.
One concern was safeguarding local farmers, said Town of Goshen attorneys Richard Golden and Kelly Naughton. Like natural gas companies looking to frack on farmland in other states, new and existing solar companies have been flooding New York farmers with lease offers.
Naughton said Goshen's regulations, which required new solar plants to create site plans and receive special permits, were aimed at "responsibly addressing all the new challenges associated with solar projects."
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