Future of community solar in NY is at stake: Communities across state urge PSC to fix deeply flawed plans to replace net metering

In Jan. 18 press call, dozens of community groups to call on PSC and Cuomo Administration to ensure all New Yorkers can benefit from renewable energy 

The Public Service Commission is considering radical rule changes on how much New Yorkers get paid for contributing renewable energy to the electrical grid, and community groups across the state are raising serious concerns about what this means for the future of solar energy in the state. The rule change will initially devalue community solar, which is the only avenue available to renters and others who cannot put solar on their own property. In the future, it may apply to rooftop solar as well.

The Energy Democracy Alliance held a telephone press conference on Wednesday, Jan. 18, at 11 am EST to brief reporters on this issue. Community groups from around the state explained how nascent solar projects across the state could be torpedoed if the PSC doesn’t get the new rules right. Listen to a recording of the call here.

“We understand the PSC’s desire to abandon the existing system – net metering – in favor of more flexible ways of putting a price on renewable energy,” said Kelly Roache, business development manager at Solstice. “But the devil is in the details. And barring substantial amendments, the PSC’s proposal as it’s now written will torpedo the fledgling community solar- and wind-energy markets.

To illuminate this issue, the New York Energy Democracy Alliance, which represents groups from all over New York, prepared technical comments on the proposed rule changes that attracted the signatures of 98 organizations, elected officials and businesses from all across the state. The groups called on the PSC to make major improvements to the proposal and to slow the transition so as not to disrupt the very nascent community solar market. The PSC could make a final decision on how to value renewable generation as early as January 24.

“There are several actions the PSC could take to fix this flawed proposal so that the full value of community renewable energy development is recognized,” said Clarke Gocker, policy director at PUSH Buffalo. “But if the PSC is unreceptive to our concerns, we’d rather see no change – just keep consistent with the existing net metering program – rather than an abrupt policy shift that would set back progress toward equitable access to the benefits of renewable energy by years.”

“Net metering should serve as a bottom threshold price,” said Chris Burger, chair, Binghamton Regional Sustainability Coalition. “We need pricing that spurs investment in renewables and the growing number of jobs that sector is generating.”

The Alliance strongly supports Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s goal of “ensuring that all New Yorkers, regardless of their zip code or income, have the opportunity to access clean and affordable power.” Community solar and wind projects are essential to that goal, because they open up renewable energy to New Yorkers who live in multi-family housing, or who don’t have land or rooftops appropriate for renewable development, or who otherwise cannot – or cannot afford to – install renewable generating capacity on their own.

“With this policy, the PSC would privilege rooftop solar, which is the domain of homeowners who can make the investment, over community and shared renewables, which can be accessible to everyone,” said Pastor Edwin Pierce of Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition. “Surely we can all agree that we need policies that expand renewable energy access and benefits for all, not just those lucky enough to own property. Why should the energy produced by someone’s rooftop system by seen as more valuable than energy produced from a community array?”

Many businesses also cannot put solar on their own property because they are either tenants or do not have a suitable space.

“Not every business is situated for onsite solar. Much like residential customers, many of our small businesses need the offsite option that community solar offers,” said Bob Rossi, director, New York State Sustainable Business Council.

Renewable energy projects save money over time but have upfront financing costs that usually need to be financed. These financing costs can be reduced if there is market certainty. The proposed rule would rapidly change potential revenue streams and add in volatility, making securing financing more difficult and projects more expensive. This could be a huge problem, especially for smaller solar and wind developers. It could also put projects out of reach of low-income people by making them too expensive.

Adam Flint, Community Owned Shared Renewables Working Group co-coordinator said, “Energy Democracy Alliance members are in the process of developing a half a dozen shared solar projects across the state to serve low- and moderate-income New Yorkers in a wide variety of situations. We have documented this, and told the PSC precisely and repeatedly what needs to be changed in current policy and programs to enable us to save our members money and create jobs. We trust that they will listen this time, so we can do as the Governor promised.”

Community renewable energy projects are seen as a key tool for bringing the benefits of renewable energy to a wider range of groups, including low-income communities, multi-family dwellings, and communities of color, where clean and affordable energy is needed the most.

“There is tremendous interest in developing solar projects in environmental justice communities in New York, but in our work to support these efforts we have seen the significant challenges communities face in getting projects off the ground,” said Shiva Prakash of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. “The current Value of Distributed Energy Resources proposal has the potential to further burden these projects with a complex, unpredictable, and unequal valuation of generated energy. We urge the PSC to consider common sense changes to ensure its policy does not leave behind our most disadvantaged communities in New York’s transition to clean energy.”

“We must make every effort to expand access to renewable energy for all New Yorkers, especially those that are currently barred from easy access,” said Ryan Madden, sustainability organizer for the Long Island Progressive Coalition. “The rule changes proposed by the PSC move us in the wrong direction. Even here on Long Island, where 30,000 homes now have rooftop solar, we’re in a situation where 80% of electricity customers can’t readily access solar. We need policies that support the growth of community solar to bring those people into the renewable energy mix.”

The PSC’s proposed rules focus on maximizing the value of renewable energy to utilities and capping impacts on utility revenues, rather than promoting renewable energy development that maximizes value to society as a whole. The Energy Democracy Alliance has proposed several factors that should be taken into account when determining the value of a shared renewable energy project, such as improved energy affordability for low-income people; reduction in air and water pollution, especially in environmental justice communities; local economic development; increases in storm resiliency; and others.

These projects include:

  • Two additional community solar projects totaling two MWs each to be developed on a capped landfill in the Mid-Hudson Valley on top of two projects in process. A portion of the profit generated from the sale of the electricity from the projects will be used to pay medical bills and provide support for 9/11 first responders and victims still suffering.
  • Ten 20kW solar arrays that would be built as part of an affordable solar partnership for low- and moderate-income co-ops in NYC
  • An 80 – 100kW solar array on the roof of a decommissioned school in Buffalo that is being redeveloped for mixed uses, including affordable housing
  • A 624 kW subscription-based community shared solar project that is being developed to serve residents of Bainbridge, a small rural town located in the Southern Tier
  • 1.7 MW community solar array on municipal land in the Hudson Valley that would be owned initially by Hudson Solar (Pre-Flip) with a community buyout in year six once the tax attributes are used

“From Buffalo to Binghamton to the Hudson Valley, there are community solar projects that will sink or swim depending on the PSC’s upcoming ruling,” said Jessica Azulay, program director with Alliance for a Green Economy. “These projects will bring real benefits to host communities, including reduced energy costs, health benefits, pollution reduction, and local job growth – and all of that could become out of reach if the PSC goes ahead as planned.”

###

About the Energy Democracy Alliance

The New York Energy Democracy Alliance (EDA) is a statewide alliance of community-based organizations, grassroots groups, and policy experts working together to advance a just and participatory transition to a resilient, localized, and democratically controlled clean energy economy in New York State. The EDA formed in response to New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) proceeding – a state overhaul of energy policy and renewable energy funding. The REV is a historic process that will shape our energy future for generations to come. The EDA holds regulators, political leaders, and energy companies accountable, and works to ensure that the benefits of our energy system flow to all New Yorkers, especially poor, working class people, and communities of color. All New Yorkers, regardless of their background, should have access to the benefits of renewable energy and a sustainable and equitable energy future.