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LIPA's embrace of wind energy projects troubles solar power providers

Solar power developers worry that LIPA is giving

Solar power developers worry that LIPA is giving attention to wind power at the expense of solar projects. Credit: Chris Ware

LIPA's embrace of the state's big vision for offshore wind energy foresees “very big changes to our power grid,” a utility official said Wednesday, but local solar companies fear that embrace is coming at the expense of popular solar programs.  

At a board of trustees meeting Wednesday, LIPA chief executive Tom Falcone said the state’s vision for hundreds of offshore wind turbines spinning by 2035 to power as much as 6 million homes could actually be doubled to meet both the lowest-cost potential of the area off Long Island and what’s needed to meet Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s all-renewable power goal by 2040.

“There’s about 20 gigawatts of offshore wind resource, and it’s all near Long Island, and that’s very interesting,” he said.

Cuomo last week announced contracts for the first 1,700 megawatts of offshore wind — enough, he said, to power 1 million homes — with 9,000 megawatts planned by 2035.

Falcone noted grid studies and enhancements that will be required to accommodate those power injections, even if LIPA doesn’t contract directly for the energy, including for the 880 megawatts Denmark-based Orsted is slated to bring to Holbrook by 2024. “We’re preparing,” Falcone said, including by working to lower taxes on traditional power plants that are used considerably less than a decade ago.  

But at the same meeting, LIPA came under blistering criticism from regional solar companies opposed to the utility’s decision to transition on Jan. 1 to a new state-devised pricing scheme for a burgeoning program known as community solar. The unpopular state pricing scheme known as Value of Distributed Energy Resources, or VDER, generally pays solar developers for power based on a complex set of variables, an amount generally less than the existing program known as net metering.

“I can tell you that implementing the VDER tariff on community solar projects will kill projects that we currently have under development for our municipal customers, which will hurt Long Island taxpayers,” said Stephen Foley, director of business development for Sunrise Power Solutions, a Brentwood contractor.

Community solar allows developers to sell cheaper power to subscribers around Long Island who don’t have the ability to install solar on their own roofs. The subscribers get power at a 10 percent to 20 percent discount, a savings margin that developers and installers say will evaporate under VDER. LIPA says it's up to developers to make their projects worthwhile.  

In an interview after the meeting, Shyam Mehta, executive director of the New York Solar Energy Industries Association, a solar-business group, accused LIPA of “pitting two renewable” power sources — wind and solar — against each other, and showing a “troubling indifference and downright malevolence” to the solar sector.

“Apparently LIPA is leaning toward offshore wind as its primary source,” he said.

Six local solar company officials, including the president of the Long Island Solar Energy Industry Association, Arthur Perri, and the head of an all-electric senior community, strongly urged LIPA not to shift community solar to the state pricing scheme.

“It’s my belief you’re attempting to kill” community solar, said Carole Leonard, president of the Leisure Village Association, an all-electric senior community in Ridge, some of whose residents pay winter electric bills in excess of $900 a month. “You’re doing everything in your power to stop it,” she charged.   

Falcone denied it, and that LIPA was stacking the deck in favor of wind, noting that LIPA in the past two weeks connected two big solar projects producing 24 megawatts to the grid. “I just don’t see what we’re doing that’s harming solar in any way,” he said, noting a range of LIPA solar programs, two years of advance warning of changes in community solar, and a new VDER exemption for commercial programs up to 750 kilowatts passed by the board Wednesday.

One board member weighed in on installers’ concerns. Trustee Tom McAteer Jr. said LIPA should “continue to monitor” the transition’s impact on solar installations.

Falcone said all-electric senior communities like Leisure Village would benefit more from LIPA rebates on products such as heat pumps to replace their electric resistance-heating systems rather than community solar discounts. “I think that’s their permanent solution,” he said.

But Leonard said some of the costly energy-efficiency programs leave fixed-income seniors with sticker shock over the cost, and savings from them often get offset by other PSEG charges or increases. She isn’t giving up on community solar. “I will fight this tooth and nail to my dying day,” she said.

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