Climate concerns, gas prices drive installations
In 1982, Duke Bohanon announced the launch of Solartrac, a company that would manufacture at a factory on Herbert Street in Beacon a “solar-energy collector” with twice the efficiency of traditional solar systems.
Instead of sitting in a fixed position, his disc-shaped collectors followed the sun across the sky to capture more energy, according to news reports. At the end of the day, the discs returned to a position facing east, ready for the next day’s sunrise.
“Solar is the way of the future,” declared Bohanon.
A year later, Bohanon pivoted. After concluding that his discs would make good receivers for satellite signals, he founded Astra Systems Inc. to sell antennae capable of detecting signals for up to 100 TV channels. Solar would not be in his future, but his boast about the power of the sun has proven prescient.
Utility-scale solar projects — generally over 10 megawatts — are expected to do much of the heavy lifting as New York State moves to mitigate climate change by replacing power derived from fossil fuels with solar, hydropower and wind.
But individuals and local municipalities, businesses and organizations are also embracing the transition. After declining in 2017 and remaining stable through 2020, solar installations in New York have been rising again and more people are buying rather than leasing.
Highlands residents are using government incentives to install solar systems at their homes and businesses, essentially turning them into power plants, and federal incentives under the Inflation Reduction Act will provide tax credits of up to 30 percent of installation costs through 2032.
At the same time, residents without the money or space for systems, including apartment complex owners such as the Beacon Housing Authority, are buying energy generated by small solar farms.
Philipstown officials are exploring the suitability of placing panels on its former landfill on Lane Gate Road and other town-owned properties, and Beacon is planning to supplement its solar installation at Dennings Point with an array atop the Highway Department garage on Camp Beacon Road.
A drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is a motivator, but so is cost. The price of electricity generated by natural gas rises and sometimes spikes, as it did locally in February 2022. Meanwhile, the cost of solar continues to fall.
Shipments of solar panels to the U.S. reached a record high in 2022, according to the federal Energy Information Administration, which noted this month that the costs of panels have dropped significantly since 2010.
“This is something that we all have to do, and it’s something that we can do,” said Thomas Wright, a Beacon resident who installed an 8-kilowatt system on his roof. “We can set our personal energy policy at home.”
Maria Zhynovitch, a Nelsonville trustee, and her husband, Matt, decided in 2022 to install solar. In February of that year, Central Hudson announced that residents and businesses would see electricity bills increase by an average of 46 percent and gas charges by 19 percent, due to several factors.
Their solar arrays, placed on the southwest-facing roofs of their home and an outbuilding used as a studio, began generating power in December. On Aug. 25, while discussing the 7.2-kilowatt system, Matt opened a program on his laptop that monitors the power generation and energy usage. In March, the panels generated 378 more kilowatt-hours than the Zhynovitchs used. The surpluses become credits they can apply to future bills.
“My initial thought was that it would pay for itself in seven to 10 years, but I’m thinking it may come quicker than that based on the cost of electricity and how it seems to keep going up,” he said.
Renewable energy sources generated or saved 95 million megawatts of energy between 2020 and 2022, the state Public Service Commission reported in July after a briefing on the implementation of the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA).
The legislation, passed in 2019, commits New York to obtaining 70 percent of its electricity through renewable sources by 2030 and achieving 100 percent emissions-free energy production by 2040. As of July, the state had contracted with more than 150 renewable-energy and transmission projects that, if all are completed, will deliver 66 percent of the state’s energy, according to the PSC.
One of the key incentive programs for residents, businesses, nonprofits, schools and other organizations is NY-SUN, which former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration launched in 2012 with a goal of seeing utility customers install 3 gigawatts of solar.
The CLCPA, passed in 2019, raised NY-SUN’s target to 6 gigawatts by 2025. Three years later, in May 2022, the Public Service Commission approved a $1.5 billion expansion of the program, raising its goal to 10 gigawatts by 2030. The new criteria require that 1.6 gigawatts of the expansion benefit residents who “generally lack access to rooftop solar,” such as low- and moderate-income households.
The PSC estimated that the expansion will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 54 million metric tons, save on utility costs for 127,000 new solar customers and create 6,000 jobs.
Purchasing supplants leasing
Gina Merola and her husband are leasing a rooftop solar system that was installed in 2015 on their Beacon home by SolarCity, which has since been bought by Tesla. “Since we’ve had them installed, we’ve definitely gotten lower bills,” she said. “I have no regrets.”
The trend now is to purchase systems outright. The average system installed by Empire Solar Solutions, based in Newburgh, generates 11 kilowatts and costs about $35,000, but federal and state incentives (see below) cut that price in half, said Mark Zurla, one of the company’s founders.
While the average cost that Empire’s customers pay for solar, about 12 cents per kilowatt-hour, has not changed since it began selling systems in 2015, prices for electricity generated by fossil fuels have gone up and tend to fluctuate, said Zurla.
New York offers a tax credit of up to $5,000 to residents who have:
- Purchased solar energy system equipment;
- Signed an agreement to lease a system;
- Entered into an agreement that spans at least 10 years for the purchase of solar power generated by a company.
Find out more at nyserda.ny.gov.
- The federal government offers a solar investment tax credit that allows homeowners and businesses to claim 30 percent of the installation costs. In some circumstances, people who buy interests in community-solar farms can also claim the credit. Find out more at energy.gov/eere/solar.
- New York offers residences and businesses a 15-year property-tax exemption on any increase in value due to the installation of solar systems.
- New York offers low-cost financing to residents who do not qualify for traditional loans and to business owners.
- Residential On-Bill Recovery loans are repaid as a line item on monthly utility bills. If a resident sells their home, the unpaid balance is transferred to the new homeowner.
- Smart Energy loans are repaid directly to a loan servicer.
- The Renewable Energy Tax Credit Bridge Loan is a short-term loan that allows homeowners to finance federal and state tax credits.
- Businesses and nonprofits can apply for on-bill loans of up to $50,000 to finance solar systems. The repayment period is 10 years.
- The state partners with lenders to provide small businesses with loans of up to $100,000 at below-market interest rates.
Find out more at nyserda.ny.gov.
Over the last 12 months, Central Hudson’s standard rate for electricity has ranged from a high of 16 cents per kilowatt-hour in November 2022 to 7.1 cents in July, and has averaged 11.8 cents for the past year, according to company data. Electricity prices averaged 7 cents in 2018, and peaked at 11 cents in February of that year.
The savings on electricity supply costs, coupled with credits for supplying excess power to the electrical grid (called “net metering”) and the incentives combine to create an average payback period (when savings exceed the system’s price tag) of five years, said Zurla.
“If the system is designed properly you’re not buying anything from the utility,” he said. “Nothing.”