State weighs electric rates, solar growth

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With less than a week to approve a solar-power jobs act in some form this legislative session, state lawmakers are working to hammer out a compromise that would create more flexible targets for solar growth while limiting the impact on electric rates, officials said.

Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket), author of a bill that sets a target of 3,000 megawatts of new solar power in the state by 2021, said discussions now center on giving a state agency more leverage in determining how much new solar power is added to the state grid annually, and in which forms.

Englebright said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's staff has been meeting with legislators to work on the compromise. Sen. George Maziarz (R-Newfane), who sponsored a Senate version that has yet to be voted on, is also involved in the talks, with an eye toward keeping rates low and expanding renewables manufacturing in the state, his staff said.

"I think it's very much alive," Englebright said of his bill yesterday.

"It appears there are some concerns that have been raised regarding the prescriptive nature of my bill," he said. "They want to make it a little more flexible."

Matt Wing, a spokesman for Cuomo, said the governor favors an extension of his two-year NY-Sun initiative, which provided new funding for solar installations and launched a new LIPA feed-in tariff solar program. "We are continuing to have discussions to expand [NY-Sun] in a way that is beneficial and balanced," Wing said.

Solar industry supporters of the Englebright bill pointed to figures released Thursday in a U.S. Solar Market Insight report that showed New York dropping from seventh to 10th place in a national ranking of solar-power installations in the first quarter of this year compared to a year ago.

"It's not so much that New York has slowed down as much as everybody else has accelerated," said Sail Van Nostrand, chairman of the Long Island Solar Energy Industry Association. He noted that if it weren't for the Long Island Power Authority's solar farm at Brookhaven National Lab and Suffolk County's car port program, "New York's numbers would look pretty bleak."

Activity on the Englebright bill comes as the legislature considers an amendment to a separate bill that would pave the way for on-bill financing for solar and other renewable energies. LIPA customers, for instance, would be able to finance solar systems on their electric bill, as they can starting this month with energy-efficiency improvement costs.

"It's a game changer," said Gordian Raacke, executive director of Renewable Energy Long Island.Matt Nelligan, a senior staffer for Maziarz, said a chief concern with the Englebright bill as written is its potential impact on Long Island ratepayers (costs of solar programs would be capped at 1.5 percent of LIPA's total annual revenue). "We'd like to see the cap lower" than 1.5 percent, Nelligan said. "Long Islanders pay high rates. We're very sensitive to that."

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The senator also wants to see more incentives for manufacturers and assemblers of equipment for renewable power companies to open up facilities in New York State, Nelligan said.

Conor Bambrick, an aide to Assemb. Kevin Cahill (D-Kingston), chairman of the Assembly energy committee, said megawatt growth targets for solar are an important part of the Englebright bill, because they give the ability to commit longer term. "The real key between solar and the jobs connection is providing certainty in the market for the industry to come in and set up shop in New York," he said. "We believe we can get that. The Englebright bill provides that certainty."

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