Municipalities look to the sun

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

Help from on high: The McKownville United Methodist Church on Western Avenue has architecture that complements solar panels.

HILLTOWNS — Solar energy has caught the attention of a group interested in bringing more renewable energy to the area, if it can find a financial inroad.

Knox will host the first meeting on solar energy policy in Albany County as part of the state’s photovoltaic trainers’ network starting this month, and county Legislator Deborah Busch proposed investigating the use of solar energy to town boards in July after she convened a meeting in Knox to learn about opportunities.

Westerlo Councilman William Bichteman said solar panels are being considered for powering pumps in the municipal water system.

A local group, Helderberg Community Energy, developed a business model for small-scale wind energy several years ago, hoping to harness a renewable Hilltown energy for its environmental benefits while bringing money into Knox’s budget. The plan faltered when the price of propane dropped and the financial case for wind energy became less persuasive, said Russell Pokorny, the group’s president.

“PV panels are something that are really not obtrusive and nobody really objects to them,” Pokorny, Knox’s assessor, said of photovoltaic panels. “We still have our excitement about wind, but people are finding the PV panel route to be just easier.”

Busch said her parents, Karin and Stanley Busch, who are interested in energy independence on their farm, have been members of Helderberg Community Energy and helped during its wind research. Deborah Busch, a nurse manager, said her own interest came from researching her options for cheaper and independent energy at her home and taking calls from constituents.

“We found, for the individual homeowner, it didn’t work,” she said of energy savings.

Still, the cost of the hardware for converting sunlight into electrical current has gone down and building inspectors in Westerlo and Rensselaerville have reported increasing numbers of residential installations.

The Helderberg Community Energy Group asked Busch to speak to them about the county’s energy initiatives, but “they wanted to know, is there opportunity for individuals to capitalize on that?” She added, “We ran into some quagmires there. We found, as a county, we cannot be a power authority or a power supplier to community residents.”

Busch suggested to council members that each town could set aside land for a large solar farm that powers municipal buildings and that — “our hope and our dream” — residents could eventually tap into it.

State law would have to be amended to fully realize that plan. Right now, consumers for a utility, like National Grid, are categorized by usage, separating municipalities, farms, schools, and businesses from residential properties when it comes to pooling their meters. That means the model some municipalities are using to adopt solar energy — called aggregate metering — wouldn’t be available for a solar array serving multiple residents.

Using a mix of tax incentives and tax-equity investors, companies specializing in selling solar energy are marketing their services to schools and municipalities.

The village of Corinth recently signed a 20-year contract with US Light Energy, the largest such provider in the state, paying a set rate for power that Mayor Dennis Morreale said is expected to bring $112,000 in total savings.

The installation and maintenance of the photovoltaic panels are the responsibility of US Light Energy, Chief Executive Officer Alexander Lieb said, which sells the power it takes in to the utility carrier, which then credits the village.

“I can put it up without charging the municipality anything to install and just simply become an electricity provider,” said Lieb. “I don’t have a really clean vehicle to do that within New York State for residential markets.”

The consideration for a stabilized electricity price and potential savings with adopting models similar to this has been made by several other local government boards.

The village of Voorheesville recently installed solar panels on its fire and public works departments buildings through Monolith Solar, and the town of Guilderland has entered into an energy-savings agreement to have SolomonEnergy prepare a study and requests for proposal. The Guilderland Central School District, and the Guilderland Public Library all have signed up for municipal building solar, as well.

In a recent tabulation of the completed projects taking advantage of the state’s Solar Photovoltaic Incentive Program, Albany County leads the state in the commercial sector, but lags behind similar counties in residential and government sectors.

The program offers funding to consumers for installing the panels and connecting to the grid. The money comes from fees on utility bills that go to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

“NYSERDA grants are funded by your power bill, which is kind of funny,” Berne Councilman Joseph Golden said during the July town board meeting at which Busch spoke. “It’s like cutting six inches off the bottom of a blanket and sewing it on the other end to keep your feet warm. So in that regard, you have to be very, very careful.”

After hearing Busch’s proposal, Berne Supervisor Kevin Crosier said he needed more information, wary of the expense of renewable energies, given the tax subsidies. He said a solar farm would require a “huge piece of land” for the town. It makes sense on private homes, he said.

“We’d be better taking all that money and buying everybody a wood stove and wood splitter,” Crosier told The Enterprise.

Knox Supervisor Michael Hammond, who was among those who went to Newburgh to attend a NYSERDA workshop, said he feels the town would have to see a financial reason to go through with using solar energy.

Pokorny, who is married to Knox Councilwoman Amy Pokorny, said the town spends around $9,000 a year on electricity.

 “I think you’d save a little bit of money, but there isn’t much to be saved,” Pokorny said of using solar energy. “But it’d set a good example and I think we ought to do it.”

When Helderberg Community Energy was gathering wind, bird, and bat data with a meteorological tower installed in 2006 on Middle Road in Knox, it showed the average wind speed was just shy, Pokorny said, of the 6.1 meters per second that was considered optimal. He believes the wind reading would have been sufficient because the turbines were intended to be close enough to consumers so that energy, normally lost as it is distributed over a grid, would have been used.

Soft solar

Invitations have gone out to planning, zoning, and conservation board officials for the solar policy workshop scheduled in Knox on Aug. 26 at 1 p.m. It’s principal coordinator in the town, Planning Board Chairman Robert Price, said it is open to the public.

“It recognizes that a large pipeline of solar is coming onto the market and we’re trying to help communities and municipalities prepare for that pipeline,” said Christina Becker-Birck, senior consultant for Meister Consultants Group, one of the lead trainers contracting with NYSERDA.

The training sessions that start this month and continue for three more years are meant to reduce the soft costs that go into the high upfront expenses of installing solar panels. These include the time companies spend in the permitting process, zoning accommodations, and the effort it takes to acquire customers.

In Westerlo, Code Enforcement Officer Edwin Lawson said panels have been installed on a mix of properties, not just those with wealthy property owners.

Typically, the company installing the system will seek a building permit, Lawson said, which costs $50 in Westerlo and requires a set of engineer’s drawings to show a roof installation can be supported and the means of disconnecting the panels for fighting house fires.

Germany, a global leader in the solar industry, has a national permitting process, unlike the United States, where one community can have a system that is less time consuming than another.

“Some communities in New York State have adopted streamlined permitting processes,” said Becker-Birck. “Others have taken the stance of just not taking a stance; they just don’t have a policy in place, so…depending on what that process is, that ultimately can increase the cost of buying solar as well.”

NYSERDA, along with the City University of New York and the New York Power Authority, in an effort to simplify expectations for companies developing solar energy in new communities, has developed a Unified Solar Permit for municipalities to adopt.

With Solarize, a concept first started in Portland, Oregon, groups of residents within counties across New York have collectively bid for solar installations within a set time window. They negotiate a reduced price for their panels since the companies’ burdens of courting customers across a broad market are reduced.

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