In renewables, no Island should be an island

The $1.5 million question: Stony Brook's CEBIP is ready to keep on incubating, according to Executive Director David Hamilton.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

A report this week detailing state incentives and private investments funneled into structural energy-efficiency projects shows Long Island trailing well behind the rest of New York – but the numbers, insiders say, are deceiving.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office announced that 112,000 residential and commercial energy-efficiency projects have commenced or been completed since 2012 under the auspices of various Albany-sanctioned clean-energy programs. Combined, the statewide efforts cover 90,000 individual homes and 22,000 commercial structures – including apartment buildings, hospitals, schools and office buildings – and have attracted some $766 million in private investments, according to the report.

They’ll also save New York ratepayers a projected $341 million in annual energy expenses – about $56 per month for the average homeowner – while dramatically reducing carbon dioxide emissions. And by promoting new efficiency standards, they’ll ultimately reduce statewide electricity demand by 2 million megawatts per year, enough juice to power 275,000 homes.

Similar ecologically friendly results are being recorded in heating-fuel demand and greenhouse gas emissions, according to the governor’s office. Together, the strong numbers reinforce Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision strategy, which champions clean, locally produced power and significant environmental goals: 40 percent lower statewide greenhouse gas emissions while securing half of the state’s electricity supply from renewable sources, both by 2030.

While New York’s overall energy-efficiency progress is impressive, a breakdown of the state incentives, private investments, number of projects and resulting environmental benefits shows Long Island at or near the bottom in virtually every category.

For instance, according to the governor’s office, Long Island engaged or completed 1,153 energy-efficient commercial building projects over the last four years. Among the state’s 10 economic zones, that was better only than Mohawk Valley (832 commercial building projects) and North Country (604).

Long Island ranked equally low in total energy-efficiency projects, including commercial and residential efforts, accumulating 5,458 – enough to edge North Country (5,275) and Mohawk Valley (4,761), but nowhere near the 22,370 projects reported in Western New York or the 15,128 recorded in New York City.

Private investment in energy-efficiency projects also trails on Long Island, according to the report. While a category-best $339.2 million poured into projects in the Finger Lakes region over the last four years, a second-to-last $74.5 million was privately invested in Island-based energy-efficiency efforts.

Considering these numbers, it’s little surprise Long Island finished dead last in categories including carbon dioxide reduction and megawatt hours generated.

But hold on, say LI energy insiders: The governor’s report only details projects funded through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, a public benefit corporation that offers financial assistance, technical expertise and other support to energy-efficiency efforts.

Since Long Island ratepayers don’t pay the NYSERDA Systems Benefit Charge – established in 1996 by the New York Public Service Commission to fund policy initiatives related to the state’s electricity market – Island programs aren’t eligible for NYSERDA funds.

That explains the relatively meager Long Island-focused state incentives listed in the report. According to Cuomo’s office, Island energy-efficiency efforts attracted roughly $20 million in state incentives – miles from the $183 million sent to New York City and the $85.2 million supporting Finger Lakes initiatives.

It might also explain Long Island’s dismal performance regarding private investments. Because Island projects aren’t eligible for NYSERDA support, “the logic follows” that private investment would trail here also, noted David Hamilton, executive director of the Clean Energy Business Incubator Program at Stony Brook University.

“One would assume that private funding would follow the successful state-funded programs, and be lagging here on Long Island,” Hamilton said. “If you don’t get that state funding to prime the pump, private funding might be less available.”

That’s not to say private investment isn’t happening here. In the past week alone, several privately funded solar-farm projects moved forward across Long Island, including the Smithtown Town Board’s March 24 approval of a special exception allowing a 180,000-panel farm on 27 acres in Kings Park. A developer who is proposing a 19.2 megawatt farm for 60 acres of Mastic woodland also appeared before the Brookhaven Town Planning and Zoning boards, seeking a variance on industrial-zone frontage requirements.

And Invenergy, a Chicago-based owner/operator of energy storage and generation projects across North America and Europe, applied March 24 for tax benefits through the Brookhaven IDA as it looks to construct a 24.9 megawatt solar farm in Shoreham, adjacent to an existing, privately funded 9.5 megawatt farm.

Despite what appears to be serious deficiencies revealed in the governor’s report, Long Island’s energy-efficiency industry is actually thriving, according to Gordian Raacke, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog Renewable Energy Long Island.

Worth noting, Raacke said, is that Long Island ratepayers, in lieu of NYSERDA’s Systems Benefit Charge, pay PSEG a monthly fee that covers what the utility calls “the cost of PSEGLI’s energy efficiency and renewables programs.”

As an Island-only version of NYSERDA’s benefit charge, PSEG’s efficiency surcharge helps create some “robust and exciting” regional renewability opportunities, Raacke told Innovate LI. In fact, he added, PSEG’s efficiency efforts may even be “more aggressive” than other statewide initiatives.

But Raacke and Hamilton both suggested Long Island’s best energy-efficiency destiny may come from aligning with the rest of the state – in essence, trading the PSEG fee for the NYSERDA benefit charge. It’s a politically dicey proposition, but getting in line would open Island initiatives to NYSERDA’s rich incentives programs, while likely attracting more deep-pocketed private investors.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to pretend that Long Island isn’t part of New York State,” Raacke noted. “We are. And in order to reach the governor’s goals, we have to aggressively ramp up investments, including bringing off-shore wind generation through Long Island and making large-scale solar investments.

“We’re already paying an energy-efficiency charge on our bills,” he added. “The only thing that would change is it goes to a statewide program.”

Hamilton agreed that switching the surcharges would make a “significant difference” for Long Island energy-efficiency initiatives.

“Personally, I think we should be involved in the state program, and LIPA and PSEG should work with the state to make that happen,” Hamilton said. “If we were eligible for more state funding, Island ratepayers would reap the benefits.”