State’s $160M renewables program sidesteps LI

CEBIP's David HamiltonCEBIP exec David Hamilton

BY GREGORY ZELLER

New York State’s new $160 million clean-energy initiative is an environmental and economic-development boon of the highest order. But not for Long Island.

In fact, the funding program announced April 7 by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – designed specifically to grow large-scale clean-energy projects – could deliver a staggering blow to the Island’s innovation economy by luring clean-gen projects elsewhere.

The program is funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which is built on surcharges collected through the state’s private electric utilities. Since LIPA ratepayers don’t pay into the RPS, none of the $160 million is available for clean-energy projects based on the Island or off its shores.

That’s only fair, according to David Hamilton, director of business development for the Clean Energy Business Incubator Program at Stony Brook University: Long Island doesn’t pay into the NYSERDA fund, so it shouldn’t reap its benefits. But the likelihood of clean-energy projects that could be sited on Long Island instead going to other regions where the $160 million is in play is nonetheless “disappointing,” Hamilton noted.

“It’s very conceivable that projects that were slated for Long Island will now be installed elsewhere, where they can win funding from the state,” Hamilton said. “Instead of coming here, they’ll go to Rochester or Buffalo.

“Companies that are based on Long Island can of course do business in other areas, so from the corporate economic-development perspective, Long Island companies can still profit from this,” he added. “But from the economic-development perspective of furthering clean-energy initiatives here and creating local jobs – of local workers installing solar farms – that’s not going to happen.”

It also begs the question of whether Long Island clean-energy projects will ever be eligible for this kind of financial assistance. According to Hamilton, one of the reasons LIPA ratepayers don’t pay into the RPS is LIPA already collects a surcharge to fund clean-energy R&D – the Efficiency and Renewables Charge – though Hamilton questions the power authority’s handling of those funds.

“Most of it goes into energy-efficiency projects, not into alternative-energy projects,” he said. “Certainly, LIPA isn’t spending that money the way NYSERDA is going to spend that $160 million.”

Less forgiving of the fact that Long Island is aced out of the new clean-energy funding initiative is Gordian Raacke, the founder and executive director of the environmental activist group Renewable Energy Long Island.

“It’s very frustrating,” Raacke told Innovate-LI.

Although he acknowledges that LIPA ratepayers don’t pay into any NYSERDA funds, Raacke sees the new program as more of a $160 million slap in the face, following other recent examples of Albany turning a blind eye to Long Island’s energy-efficiency efforts. Exhibit A: The state’s decision in December not to support proposals for wind farms sited off Long Island’s shores.

“Those farms have been in the works for many years now, and many of us were hoping the state would support them, but the state rejected the latest proposal,” Raacke said. “That’s just one example where the state authority didn’t pay attention to what was needed here, and what people here have been calling for.”

Another example: Cuomo’s decision to pull $41 million from the Regional Green Gas Initiative – a statewide clean-energy fund that LIPA ratepayers do pay into – to cover gaps in his 2015 general budget.

“That fund is meant to make renewable-energy projects possible,” Raacke noted. “We all pay for it through our electric bills. That money comes out of ratepayers’ pockets and it’s not meant for the general fund. That was a very disappointing decision.”

Hamilton cited another example of this alleged clean-energy funding imbalance: When the Cuomo administration restructured LIPA after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, certain funding levels were committed to the development of alternative-energy projects, but according to the CEBIP exec, “the state only wound up giving a portion of those funds.”

“They did not live up to the general bargain,” Hamilton said. “There does seem to be a trend that, based on what Long Island pays in taxes and surcharges, a proportional amount does not come back to Long Island.”

But even that doesn’t mean Long Island should suddenly be eligible for funding through NYSERDA programs, Hamilton noted, even if those programs provide significant government support for wind farms, fuel cells, biomass facilities and other alternative-energy projects in line with CEBIP and RELI’s ultimate goals.

“Do I wish it was different? Sure,” he said. “Do I wish we had access on Long Island to NYSERDA money? Sure. But the only way we’re going to have access is if LIPA pays in, and the only way LIPA is going to pay in is it charges the ratepayer more money.”

Although Long Island won’t benefit directly from the $160 million fund, Hamilton – who leads business-development efforts at a program designed specifically to help tech companies bridge the gap between innovation and market – noted that “any funding New York State can put toward clean-energy technologies is a boon for these industries.”

“Any money put toward solar or wind or hydro or fuel cells – we’ve been trying to get the hydrogen economy up and running for decades now – is exciting,” he said. “This will provide clean-energy companies both large and small with opportunities to expand their business.

“While I wish $160 million was $260 million or some other big number, and I wish some of that money was coming [to Long Island], this is nothing but a good thing.”