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Solar incentives spur enterprise, mandate raises concerns – Press & Sun

In taking the first steps to go solar, Village of Owego trustees are happy if they are saving the earth. But they are most interested in saving money.

At a meeting last week, Owego trustees voted to approve a 120-day contract with Renovus Solar. The agreement would allow the Ithaca-based company to approach financiers for a solar installation in Tioga County to produce village power. It also allows the village time to sort through local and state policy pivotal in the long-term success of the project.

While officials are still doing the math, the project “could be a big money saver over 25 years,” Mayor Steve May said. “We’re researching it. We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing.”

The Owego project is an example of solar’s emergence into the mainstream. But with policy still in its infancy and little precedent to go on, doing the right thing is complicated.

State and federal incentives have spurred a flurry of proposals from businesses seeking to lease land for community solar installations and consumers attracted to the idea but unsure of the long-term consequences.

The number of solar projects in the state is surging, according to figures form the New York State Energy Research Development Authority. In 2011, approximately 9,000 projects statewide provided 80 megawatts of power. By the end of 2015, more than 45,000 projects produced some 525 megawatts.

Growth is expected to accelerate even faster in 2016 in the wake of new incentives by the Gov. Andrew Cuomo administration encouraging an array of residential and commercial solar possibilities.

Rooftop panels that have been the standard hardware for a generation are still a common option. But now remote sites in open fields — solar farms — produce more power and deliver it to businesses and residents who might live in a shady house, dwell in an apartment or occupy a site otherwise unsuited for solar.

Some of these farms, like the proposal for the Owego project at a site yet to be named, serve individual commercial or municipal users. Others are shared by multiple users. In the first quarter of 2016 alone, six developers have filed 42 applications for shared solar projects with an average size of 2 megawatts, according to figures from NYSERDA.

Hundreds more projects are on they way, according to officials.

While solar installations may be a good option for some parties under certain circumstances, business advocates fear the broader consequences of Cuomo’s Clean Energy Standard, which mandates that 50 percent of the state’s energy is produced by renewable sources by 2030.

“Goals are good,” said Darren Suarez, a spokesman for the Business Council of New York State, Inc. “But when you take options away, that’s not good. We know it [the energy mandate] will raise the cost. We have to be conscious of the potential effects.”

Suarez was speaking about the mandate that encompasses the entire renewable energy portfolio including wind, geothermal and solar, though each kind of energy and each project have their own economic considerations.

The worse case-scenario, according to Suarez: a mandate for renewable energy will ultimately raise costs and drive businesses out of New York to places with cheaper energy that also happens to be dirty. “In that case, we can have all the [environmental] benefits possible in New York and it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans,” he said.

The environmental and economic effectiveness of the solar movement remains to be seen over the next 14 years. The cost of producing and installing solar panels is dropping rapidly as the markets develop, Suarez said. And solar is just one of several renewable technologies in the mix, each with it’s own set of economic considerations, and operational advantages and limits.

Wind is not effective in calm places. Solar is not effective in shady places. Because both have limits on producing base-load energy, grids and accounting have to be updated to factor surges and lulls.

Many factors remain in play as stakeholders, including consumers, regulators, developers and utilities, continue to negotiate the interface of policy and practice with ongoing hearings and public proceedings throughout the state.

As stakeholders like the Village of Owego gauge the legalities and economics on the receiving end of the solar farm, landowners are considering the same factors for leasing acreage for production.

Meanwhile, developers must acquire financing, secure land, install hardware, connect it, operate it and keep track of membership.

“There is how this looks to the customer. And then there is how it looks to the developer,” said Adam Flint, program manager at Southern Tier Solar Works, a nonprofit organization that receives state funding to facilitate community solar development. The agency helps connect solar consumers with producers and provides free assessments and education.

Selling solar power means acquiring land for installations. And the competition is on.

Attorney’s for landowner groups are advising clients to lawyer up to avoid exploitative lease deals. It’s the same warning they gave about drilling companies competing for acreage for shale gas development.

“There is a huge push for solar, and developers are coming from out of state,” said Jon McNamara, general manager of Renovus. Legal scrutiny by landowners “is a good thing,” Renovus said, because it’s sound business. He also feels it gives his in-state company a competitive advantage.

Village of Owego trustees, meanwhile, are optimistic but proceeding with caution. “We find it fascinating and we have a lot of homework to do before we take the next step,” May said.

Follow Tom Wilber on Twitter @Wilberwrites

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