Long Island’s white-hot market for rooftop solar installations has been a roller-coaster ride in 2016, spiking to a record in March before falling 62 percent by July.
March saw 1,925 solar installations, the highest recorded since LIPA began offering the program more than a decade ago, according to PSEG Long Island figures. Since then, installations have largely fallen off a cliff, settling at less than half that figure, or 718 for the month of July, a figure lower than the same month of the two previous years. The numbers are based on PSEG installation of so-called net meters — special meters that can spin backward when customers’ solar systems produce power in excess of their usage.
Solar installations rebounded slightly in August, but local experts say the frenzy that characterized the local market for the past year has cooled. The slowdown comes as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration is making a push for 50 percent renewable energy by 2030, even while reducing incentives that helped establish the Long Island market.
Installers are blaming the loss in April of a popular LIPA rebate program that was taken over by the state two years ago, then discontinued when it ran out of money. They also say solar leasing companies have been less aggressive in marketing to residential customers, a big catalyst for prior year sales growth.
In any case, a core contingent of solar installation companies say they’re feeling the contraction.
“We’re definitely experiencing a reduction in the pipeline” for new customers, said Sail Van Nostrand, owner of Energy by Choice in Northport. “The number of interested parties is significantly off from the previous year.”
In addition to the loss of the rebate program, there’s been uncertainty about a solar loan program also run by the state, offering low-interest loans for systems with repayments made through customers’ energy bills.
That on-bill program stopped offering the lowest-interest-rate loans for all but low- and moderate-income customers as of midnight Wednesday, according to PSEG. A prior rate of 3.49 percent to 3.99 percent for all customers is now available just for low- to moderate-income users, while the rate was hiked by 2 percent to 4 percent for customers with higher incomes. A spokeswoman for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which administered the rebates and the loan program, said the agency made the move to “focus attention and resources on lower-income communities and ensure a sustainable financing program will be available to all customers.”
Van Nostrand saw it differently.
“We lost the incentive, now we’re losing the best loan product that was out there for purchasing systems,” he said.
The big national companies that had led the business of leasing solar systems on Long Island also have adjusted to the market— or left entirely. One company, SunEdison, went bankrupt in April, and observers say the other big players have been less aggressive in marketing systems here, including easing up on door-to-door sales pitches.
“They come, they eat, they leave,” said Mike Bailis, co-founder of SUNation Solar Systems in Ronkonkoma, Long Island’s largest seller of solar systems. “Last year the leasing companies were marketing like crazy. Then all of a sudden they disappeared. We more than doubled our business last year in part because of that.”
This year, Bailis said, SUNation hopes to maintain business at last year’s levels, though currently sales are slightly lower.
Mike Voltz, who directs PSEG’s green-energy programs, said he views the market as settling into a more sustainable level.
“Although it’s down from its peak, I think the peak was an unsustainable bubble that was from leasing companies putting boots on the ground to sell more solar,” Voltz said. When federal legislation to extend solar tax credits for five years was signed into law, the frenzy ended, and many leasing companies cut back on aggressive sales forces.
Lee Keshishian, regional vice president for SolarCity’s East Coast operations, acknowledged summer sales on Long Island “have seen some slowing” from March, blaming it on a seasonal slowdown but adding that big summer electric bills could cause some to go solar this fall.
SolarCity also has been rolling out a new solar loan program to allow customers to buy their systems. “It took some time to train our sales staff on the new product, but now that it’s available it’s very popular with customers,” he said.
PSEG was expected this fall to take over the on-bill loan program that the state energy authority is cutting back, but Voltz said the company now hopes to have it finalized by January.