A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Aiming Towards Community Solar – Economics Shape Our Energy Abilities

By Paul Smart

Where does solar power stand these days, two years plus into a time of reversing energy trends? Talking to folks around the Hudson Valley, looking at solar projects big and small, we’ve noticed shifts in attitudes. But also challenges tied to deeper economic and societal trends.

We still know a number of home and business owners putting solar panels on or around the homes and properties. There are still new businesses starting up in the field, throughout the region. The bigger news, however, has been the growing push towards larger solar fields seeking zoning okays in Hudson Valley towns and villages, and efforts selling the benefits of “community solar” to local residents.

Last year saw much written about a new program from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) allowing income-eligible residents subsidized subscriptions to community solar projects at no upfront cost or participation fees, with residents in the towns of Crawford, Poughkeepsie, Rochester, and Thompson receiving the first contracts to take part in the enticingly-named Solar For All. Funding for the program is provided by the state’s 10-year, $5.3 billion Clean Energy Fund (CEF), a core component of New York State’s “Reforming the Energy” vision strategy to achieve a clean, resilient, and affordable energy system for all New Yorkers.

Scenic Hudson, long one of the region’s key environmental stewards (and bellwethers) noted that it now wholeheartedly “supports the necessary development of renewable energy sources in the Hudson Valley by providing best practices and facilitating dialogue between project developers, stakeholders, and local communities” in regards to large-scale solar projects. “By reviewing these projects and negotiating site details, we will recommend that developers adopt the principles outlined in Clean Energy, Green Communities to ensure that risks to prime agricultural lands and conserved open space will be mitigated.” Their web page on such matters shows a West-of-Hudson field of solar panels surrounded by green, mountains in the distance, and pegs successful projects underway in Greene County.

More recently in late April, the Metro North side of the powerful MTA, our nation’s largest public transportation system, announced bidding for giant solar fields in several locations along its tracks, including a new field for Wassaic, which is also home to one of the area’s more enterprising new arts communities. “Green energy always had a dual benefit—it can help save the planet and it can be a big money-maker as well,” said MTA Chief Development Officer, Janno Lieber. “This common-sense, innovative new program will further help the environment, while generating a significant amount of new revenue for the MTA.”

Mike Baden, supervisor of the Rondout Valley town of Rochester, was totally gung-ho about the way once-controversial solar arrays in his town would bring in rental revenues and allow those participating in Solar For All. At the same time, a young NYU professor, Brendan Noakes, called to promote his new Solar Seek effort to sell shares in a new solar field his company’s helping get up and running by summer at a site near Storm King Art Center in New Windsor.

“At over five megawatts, covering 40 acres of land, and visibly hidden from the road, this project comprises 16,000 solar panels and provides enough power for an estimated 650 homes serviced by Central Hudson Gas & Electric,” Solar Seek’s promo materials read. “Every business or resident who subscribes to the farm will see guaranteed savings every month, all without having to put panels on their roof. As a subscriber to this solar farm you pay nothing out of pocket and have all of your kWh charges offset on your electric bill. You will then be charged 90% for every amount that is offset—guaranteeing a 10% discount every month through your Central Hudson charges.”

Noakes said he got into solar energy after leaving work in the sports marketing world. He wanted to be more involved in environmentally-aware portions of the economy. He moved to the US, started teaching classes at New York University, and got the idea for starting a business after leading a team that authored a policy paper on how NYU could go green more efficiently, moving beyond the cap-and-trade concepts of the last century (utilizing corporately purchased renewable energy certificates) to green investment projects that involved the building of actual solar farms that provided Solar For All-like energy discounts.

Increase the capacity for solar beyond its current five percent off all energy resources profile for the state, in other words, while also fulcruming the university’s cash reserves towards “green” purposing.

“I see what I’m doing as trying to make something not tangible more tangible,” Noakes said. “I see community solar as a way to not only democratize your energy sources, but also a good stepping stone into a solar future.”

A breakdown of how the New Windsor community solar array is shaping up demonstrates modern economics at a ramped-up level. The actual site developer is a “sustainable development group” called Solexus. The project was developed by Solexus, which originally ran into some zoning obstacles when first developing their solar array. The project owner is a Connecticut-based solar energy finance company, Green Street Power Partners, financing huge commercial projects around the area. PowerMarket will administer “the community solar billing and provide innovative software and services that enable community solar development. Solar Seek provides “advisory services to help market, construct, and raise awareness of local renewable energy developments in the Tristate area.”

Where, in all this, is the older concept of “community” as reflected in the terminology the solar world is now using to attract buy-in, both with subsidized governmental help, and new corporate and financial world buy-ins?

Some countries make statutory provision for priority access to the grid for renewable generators, such as the European Renewable Energy Directive. In the US, most large, shareable solar energy “farms” still need public funds to start up; Senator Mark Udall introduced the SUN Act (Solar Uniting Neighborhoods) to extend a 30% tax credit to community solar farms in 2010 and 2011, enabling groups of individuals or homeowner associations to develop utility-scale solar power facilities in collaboration with local utilities that would distribute the power and credit owners based on their percentage of investment in the solar farm, extending the tax credits accordingly. But as with many tax things of late, the incentives have shifted towards larger financial entities, with entrepreneurs like Noakes struggling to fit themselves into the picture beyond the big bucks.

Noakes said that he’s been able to round up 100 subscribers to the New Windsor solar farm; he needs 700 more for it all to come to life.

When asked about truer community models, something many in our nation would label “socialist”, we spoke about big solar fields being built in Europe, and increasingly in Asia where the entire grid is communally or governmentally owned. Then he pointed to a more local example: SunCommon, founded in Vermont and now joining forces with other entities throughout the Hudson Valley.

“A solar company with a purpose beyond profit,” is how the Vermont-based company describes itself. “Our culture is intentional, and we value it deeply. We celebrate open and honest communication, hard work, creativity, cross-functional collaboration, high energy, good play, deep networking, and acknowledging that we’ll each make mistakes and learn from them. We’re a local company made up of individuals who care about the people and places that surround us.”

The company originated with advocacy group Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG, their equivalent to New York’s NYPIRG), which in September 2010 started a program to install solar power and hot water systems for homeowners. The initiative’s success led VPIRG to spin it off into independent company SunCommon, which was incorporated as a benefit corporation, then publicly launched after finding funding via private investment – the America way (for now).

Yes, they are proud of being a Public Benefit Corporation, an ancient form of raising funds for public purposes many think of in terms of monopolistic public authorities. “That means it was our choice to be legally bound to put our employees, our communities and the habitat that sustains us all on equal footing with making a profit,” their website notes.

But along with everything around renewable energy at this point, beyond communal use of water power in a few deeply rural areas, and rural electrical cooperatives, SunCommon is equally proud that it stays committed to the ideal of profit, “providing capital to grow, revenue to empower and share among our employees and a reasonable return to our investors.

Which still gives capital the upper hand when it comes to the sharing of energy, at least until we reach our next level of need for better energy solutions beyond the limitations of our current economic thought.

Photo: Ulster County’s first solar farm off Route 9W.