The Long Island Power Authority has declared that its fund to provide rebates to people who install solar photovoltaic panels on their rooftops to harvest electricity is out of money. This has seriously hurt the solar industry on the island. And it has cast doubt on LIPA’s commitment to solar energy.
“Three weeks after LIPA suspended its solar rebate program because the money ran out, the industry that has built up around it is in limbo,” Newsday reported last week. The full-page article was headlined “Solar Jobs Cool Down.”
State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor, often critical of LIPA, said last week that what has happened “calls into question whether LIPA really has a commitment to solar energy.”
Suffolk Legislator Edward Romaine of Center Moriches last week re-introduced his proposed county law to set up a LIPA oversight committee—and it cites the stoppage of solar financial support by LIPA as among the reasons. The bill states that “LIPA’s practices remain controversial including their recent decision to reduce funding for their solar program.” Mr. Romaine’s original bill failed to pass after lobbying of legislators by LIPA.
LIPA’s solar fund—a little over $20 million this year—is dwarfed by LIPA’s annual budget of $3.7 billion. But that money has made a big difference in the spread of solar electricity on Long Island. Most recently, LIPA was providing a rebate to homeowners of $1.75 per watt of installed solar photovoltaic electricity. For a typical 5,000-watt solar system, that has meant a rebate of $8,750. Combined with federal and state tax credits, this brings the bottom-line cost of a 5,000-watt solar installation to $9,875. This is relatively affordable considering that for many homeowners the 5,000 watts provide all the electricity they need.
With the LIPA rebate, solar installations have been a bustling business on Long Island. The LIPA rebate program began in 2000. At the end of that year, there were two grid-connected photovoltaic systems. And each year since the numbers have jumped. In 2007, some 291 systems were installed. In 2008 507 systems went up. And in 2009 there were 783.For the first six months of 2010, some 798 photovoltaic systems were installed. Moreover, this has happened in recent years despite the amount of the LIPA rebate decreasing.
Not only is solar electricity an energy boon for the homeowners who install photovoltaic panels, but having more and more Long Islanders harvesting their own electricity lessens LIPA’s need to be concerned about getting and paying for electricity from conventional sources. It is a step toward energy independence on Long Island.
Moreover, it is in harmony with the New York State’s program of generating more power by renewable energy. The state goal for this is 30 percent by 2015.
For LIPA, as a state agency, to fumble on a major component of this program—solar electricity collected on rooftops throughout New York State—is a sad commentary on LIPA.
Gordian Raacke, executive director of the East Hampton-based organization Renewable Energy Long Island, is proposing that LIPA consider what has become a key way solar energy is being encouraged in other nations and just starting in the United States—something called “feed-in tariffs.” It’s the term for a utility paying an amount comparable to the retail cost of electricity for those generating power with renewable energy systems like solar photovoltaic panels. Currently, for the excess electricity fed into its system, LIPA pays a homeowner with solar panels about half the price at which it sells electricity.
Mr. Thiele also backs feed-in tariffs as a way for LIPA to further spur solar energy. Meanwhile, he scores LIPA for not “properly planning” its solar rebate fund and says he hopes that with a restart of rebates in 2011, LIPA will “plan for the demand.”