Long Island looks into the eyes of the sun

state support for solarSolar usage in New York tripled between 2011 and 2014, but Long Island could me maxed out.

By GREGORY ZELLER // New York State is lapping the nation in solar-power growth – but Long Island may be hitting its head on solar’s technological ceiling.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced today that solar power usage in New York increased by more than 300 percent between 2011 and 2014 – twice the U.S. growth rate, according to a press release from the governor’s office.

That makes the Empire State “a leader in clean-energy technology,” noted Cuomo, who credited the rapid growth to programs like his NY-Sun Initiative.

“We’re making solar a reality in virtually every corner of the state,” the governor said. “I am proud to see New York pulling well ahead of the national average for the growing solar industry.”

NY-Sun is a $1 billion effort to promote clean energy sources and create a more resilient energy grid by combining and expanding solar programs spearheaded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the Long Island Power Authority, PSEG Long Island and the New York Power Authority.

Through NY-Sun and similar programs bankrolled by Cuomo’s $5 billion Clean Energy Fund, a total of 314.48 megawatts of solar electricity was installed throughout the state between 2011 and December 2014 – enough to power more than 51,000 homes, according to the release.

Since NY-Sun launched in 2011, solar capacity has tripled, quadrupled or quintupled in every region of the state other than Long Island, though Long Island boasts more solar installations than any other region, the release noted. All told, since 2011, the number of installed megawatts has increased by 154 percent on the Island; solar megawatts jumped the most in the North Country region (573 percent), followed by the Finger Lakes (533 percent) and Central New York (519 percent).

New York’s amazing growth easily outpaces the nation’s, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, which cites a 146 percent increase in national solar capacity between 2011 and 2014.

And not only do solar installations lower society’s carbon footprint, they create jobs: The SEIA counts roughly 540 solar companies working in New York, employing more than 7,000 professionals.

“Solar Liberty has continued to rapidly grow and add employees because of the NY-Sun initiative,” Adam Rizzo, president of the Buffalo-based solar firm, said in a written statement. “This year, we plan to install more residential and commercial systems than anytime in Solar Liberty’s history.”

The news, alas, is not all sunny, at least on Long Island. There’s a limit on the number of megawatts each LIPA substation can accept from outside sources, and as large-scale solar projects multiply – like the 25-megawatt array LIPA trustees approved in December for the Tallgrass golf course in Shoreham, situated close to an existing 9.5-megawatt array – smaller projects, including residential installations, could be nixed.

LIPA, meanwhile, recently announced a long-term deal with California-based solar installer Sun Edison to create a series of smaller arrays in Holbrook, Westhampton Beach, Wantagh, Cutchogue and East Hampton, totaling about 11.2 MW.

Nobody disputes solar’s clean-energy or job-creation benefits, noted Suffolk County Planning Commission Chairman David Calone, but if solar projects are going to continue to spread on Long Island, certain technological upgrades will be required.

Calone – who is also CEO of investment group Jove Equity Partners, cofounder of the angel-seeding Long Island Emerging Technologies Fund and a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives – suggested two responses to the LIPA substation dilemma. The first involves increasing each substation’s input capacity.

“The system doesn’t know whether those electrons are coming from a large utility-scale array or from someone’s home,” he told Innovate LI. “As distributed energy becomes more widespread, we’re going to need for the technology at those substations to improve.

“Even more important, we may need the bigger arrays to eventually have their own substations,” Calone added. “We need to make sure that the installation of larger arrays doesn’t impinge on the ability of local homeowners to put solar on their own roofs.”

So far, the technological limitations haven’t slowed Island homeowners one bit. Gordian Raacke, executive director of the nonprofit Renewable Energy Long Island, cited the 2014 completion of a major LIPA goal set back in 2000: 10,000 solar roofs on Long Island, with many more on the way.

“The goal was to reach it by 2010 and it tool a little longer than that,” Raacke noted. “But in 2015 alone, we expect to see another 6,000 to 8,000 [residential] systems installed.”

The pace may be slowed a bit if those LIPA substation issues aren’t addressed, but the substation problem “isn’t a technical one,” Raacke added, “it’s a political one.”

“What’s limiting the capacity of substations is not that people are putting arrays on their roofs or that we’re seeing larger solar farms being built,” he said. “What’s limiting them is the lack of upgrades to those systems. As more renewable energy sources come online, we need to upgrade and modernize our electricity-transmission infrastructure.”

But that takes money, Raacke noted, and “the political will to move from fossil fuels to renewable fuels” – both of which can be hard to find.

“We’ve come a long way and we have a long way to go,” he said.

Despite the substation struggle, Raacke hailed the governor’s press release as confirmation of the “big progress” New York in general and Long Island in particular have made on the solar front. But like Calone, the RELI exec said Long Island’s solar growth may reach an impasse, unless something is done to address the Island’s outdated electrical infrastructure.

“That’s the ‘long way to go’ part,” Raacke said.