Bill Morris in Bricks & Bucks on July 12, 2017
July 12, 2017 — Utilities are successfully lobbying other state legislatures to dim solar energy.
As New York City co-ops and condominiums – and commercial buildings – continue to embrace solar energy, there are heartening and disheartening trends on the renewable-energy front.
First the good news. In New York, state-supported solar power has boomed by 800 percent over the past five years, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In New York City, buoyed by incentives, tax credits and falling costs, the number of solar installations has soared from 1,037 to 9,700 since the beginning of 2013 – and there are more than 2,000 new projects in the pipeline. Nationwide, solar and wind energy accounted for a total of 10 percent of the electricity generated in March, the first time these renewable, non-polluting sources reached double digits, according to a new report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Now the bad news. After increasing by 900 percent nationwide in the past six years, rooftop solar panel installation is expected to decline by 2 percent this year, according to projections from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. That sudden nationwide reversal is caused by several factors, including market saturation in California and other locales. But a much bigger factor, according to a report in the New York Times, is a well funded lobbying campaign by traditional utilities, which have been working successfully to get state legislatures to do away with one of solar energy’s biggest selling points: net metering, which allows people with solar panels to sell their excess power back to the grid. The utilities claim that net metering is unfair to people who do not want or cannot afford to install solar panels. So far, legislatures in Hawaii, Arizona, Maine, and Indiana have agreed to phase out net metering. [Emphasis added.]
To guide this legislative push, utilities turned to a conservative nonprofit called the American Legislative Exchange Council, which receives funding from the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.
In April, a month after wind and solar hit double digits for the first time, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry ordered his staff to examine how renewable energy is hurting such conventional energy sources as coal, oil, and natural gas. The staff’s report is due this summer, and environmentalists are fearful it could curtail the expansion of wind and solar power.
Now back to the good news. “What’s happening nationwide is scary, but we don’t have that problem here in New York City,” says Derek Nelson, a resilient-solar associate at the nonprofit Solar One, which is working to make solar energy accessible across the city. “For the next two years, any new residential solar project will be grandfathered into net metering for 20 years.”
Meanwhile, Nelson notes, the New York State Public Service Commission is holding hearings to develop a system called Value of Distributed Energy Resources (VDER) to replace the current net metering, which awards flat-rate credits to people whose solar panels generate surplus electricity. Those credits will likely be a replaced by some sort of credit based on the location of the panels, the time when they’re generating surplus electricity, and other factors. “We think such variables could be favorable for solar installations,” Nelson says. “If they get VDER right, it’ll be a template for the rest of the country.”
So is solar energy in eclipse? In may be headed that way in much of America, but not in President Trump’s hometown. For New Yorkers, that’s the best news of all.