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 COVID-19 lockdown disrupted solar projects on Long Island, figures show

A ground-mounted solar system, installed by EmPower, at

A ground-mounted solar system, installed by EmPower, at the Estee Lauder Companies' campus in Melville. Credit: The Estee Lauder Companies

Long Island’s solar-energy contractors, some hit hard by the three-month lockdown of nonessential construction, are seeing a slow if uneven return to business as they adjust to new virtual-sales models and try to win new customers.

Demand for commercial and municipal projects, some boosted by recently enacted LIPA programs, is seeing an increase, while demand for residential projects, which initially fell sharply during the shutdown, is slower, according to figures from a state database of solar projects provided by PSEG Long Island. Some commercial projects deemed essential work were largely unscathed by the shutdown.

The database of solar projects through spring shows customer applications for new residential systems, after declining by more than half in April to 201, began a slow rebound, to 301 applications in May, before gaining steam in June to 443. That compares with 582 for applications in June 2019.

Commercial applications for new solar projects, however, increased, to four in March compared with one in 2019, after LIPA launched a new solar community solar program and tweaked an existing one with more incentives, this year. Community solar programs let distant subscribers buy the energy from arrays on building rooftops. Commercial applications are larger and are often the culmination of months or years of analysis and sales work.

The number of completed residential jobs also fell 81% as a result of COVID-19, according to the figures. Only 83 home solar installations were finished in May, a record low for the past two years, compared with 437 for the period last year. There were 316 completed projects in June compared with 459 a year ago, a 31% decline. 

On the commercial side, only two projects were completed in June, compared with eight last year. In May, one project was completed compared with three last year.

The lockdown also impacted solar installers depending on the type of customers they service. Installers working on projects considered essential were able to keep working through the shutdown.

Steve Foley, director of business development for Sunrise Power Solutions in Hauppauge, which focuses on municipal and some commercial business, said  one big project that kept its workers busy — with COVID-19 safeguards — was a 2-megawatt system of solar car ports for the Smithtown West High School District that will feed energy to other buildings in the district.

“The residential sector was really crushed” by COVID-19, but “we were very fortunate, because most of our work deals with schools,” Foley said.

Companies that specialize in residential solar said the shutdown impacted their ability to start jobs scheduled for the spring, or finish those already started, and COVID overall has added an element of uncertainty to consumer confidence, which started the year at high levels.

The pandemic also has forced companies to adapt to a new business model.

The residential sector was helped by a state financing program that offered zero % financing for systems booked in June. Now, said Mike Bailis, vice president of sales for SUNation Solar Systems in Ronkonkoma, the sales force is learning to adapt to selling in the COVID-era,  such as selling from a distance, often without entering the consumer’s home.

“This is a pivot point,” said Bailis, co-founder of SUNation.

SUNation itself is using the shutdown as a pivot point. It parted ways with an outside company that does door-to-door sales, and brought that work in-house earlier this year. The  lockdown forced the company to lay off 128 of its nearly 170-person workforce. Just over 115 have been hired back, officials said.

“We surely are not going to rebuild our company back to the level it was pre-COVID,” Bailis said, particularly not in door-to-door cold sales. Bailis is leading the team’s efforts to jump-start the commercial side of the business, where chief executive Scott Maskin sees more of the business shifting by year’s end.

Maskin and others say the LIPA community solar programs have injected new interest from commercial customers — they can mean tens of thousands of dollars in lease payments to companies that allow their building roofs to be used for panels.

David Schieren, chief executive of EmPower Solar of Island Park, said the company has seen continued growth in the commercial side of the business, while revising projections 20% downward on the residential end. It has 17 commercial projects scheduled for the year, and community solar projects are driving sales. “The growth is coming from community solar,” Schieren said.

“This year, undoubtedly, there’s been a dent in consumer sentiment,” Schieren added. “Even though more and more homeowners are thinking about home improvement, it can’t be what it was when the economy was surging.”

EmPower in May put the finishing touches one of its most ambitious commercial projects this year, a 1.45-megawatt ground-mounted system for the Estee Lauder Companies' Melville campus, which included 12 electric vehicle charging stations. 

For some installers, the commercial business has been more elusive, but residential is expanding.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said John Rocchetta, a partner at GreenLogic in Southampton. He essentially shut down the company in March, he said, and the main office is still closed, but sales people got to work virtually and “they actually did very well,” Rocchetta said.

“They sold by Zoom, Google, FaceTime meetings,” he said, adding customers embraced it. “I attribute it to people being home, and the experience of our sales team.”

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