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Long Island's solar-energy industry booming

Employees of SUNation install solar panels at a

Employees of SUNation install solar panels at a residential home in Smithtown, Oct. 15, 2015. Credit: Johnny Milano

Long Island's solar-energy industry is on a growth streak not seen since the dot-com boom.

For each of the last three years, the number of new residential and commercial solar-system installations has broken records on Long Island, with 2015 set to eclipse sales of the previous eight years combined.

The market has been driven by falling system prices, an influx of aggressive large national leasing companies, generous state and federal subsidies, and frustration with high electricity rates that are set to rise again next year, experts say.

The growth of solar is "staggering," said Carlo Lanza, chairman of the Long Island Solar Energy Industry Association, a business group. Local employment in the industry has almost doubled in two years, to at least 2,500 workers, the group estimates. "What we always dreamed of seeing happen here is coming to fruition," Lanza said.

But a cloud looms for the solar industry, as federal tax credits come to an end, say industry experts. While they differ on how much of a slowdown there will be, some are concerned it will be acute. "It's a shame to see all these jobs created and an industry created only to see subsidies end before we're ready for it," Lanza said.

The market has also benefited from a state-backed program that allows customers to finance their systems through their energy bill, allowing loan payments to essentially replace their monthly utility bill. The program expires for all but low- to moderate-income customers on March 31.

The industry has been growing so fast that utility rebates, which have declined in recent years as the state forces the industry to be self-sustaining, no longer play the role they once did in driving sales. The state last year took over the Long Island rebate program, and provided $60 million in funding, including $40 million for residential systems. Only around $3.2 million remains, and it will run out by the first half of next year, but PSEG Long Island is seeking to shift some unused commercial rebate dollars to the residential program. For a 10-kilowatt residential system, the utility rebate would amount to a maximum of $2,000, the state tax credit would top off at $5,000 and the federal tax credit could amount to more than $10,000.

11,597 systems in 9 months

From January to the end of September, more systems were installed without the once-generous LIPA rebate than with it: 6,357 compared with 5,240, respectively, according to PSEG, which administers the program. In all, 11,597 systems were installed in just the first nine months of this year.

Local installers, who built the business from a mere two installations in 2000, can barely keep up. Companies like Energy By Choice of Northport and SUNation of Oakdale are hiring staff and expanding into larger commercial projects.

Meanwhile, large national newcomers such as SolarCity, Sunrun and NRG Home Solar are opening new warehouses and hiring legions of sales and installation workers.

Sail Van Nostrand, owner of Energy By Choice, said system prices are down 15 percent to 20 percent over the past three years, to between $30,000 and $35,000 for a 10-kilowatt system. Most residential solar installations are for systems between 5 and 10 kilowatts, or 5,000 and 10,000 watts, respectively, with the intention of reducing a PSEG energy bill to just about zero. Tax credits and other incentives cut the cost nearly in half, and low-interest loans cover the balance, greatly reducing or eliminating customers' upfront costs.

"Financing is helping," Van Nostrand said.

Leasing programs, meanwhile, are greatly fueling the local industry. They were approved by LIPA just two years ago, but the programs, which deliver bill discounts to ratepayers who lease rather than own their systems, made up 65 percent of all systems installed to date in 2015.

On a larger scale, solar arrays in farm fields, on industrial rooftops and office buildings are also increasing, fed by the same state and federal tax subsidies and contract awards from the state and Long Island Power Authority.

But uncertainty looms.

The largest solar subsidy, a federal investment tax credit that covers around a third of the cost of home and commercial systems, expires at the end of 2016 and threatens to cool a market that has matured at white-hot rates on Long Island and across the country. (The 25 percent state tax credit, which has a $5,000 cap, is not expiring.)

Last month, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, on Long Island to highlight an American Indian solar installation program on the Shinnecock reservation, told Newsday the Obama administration strongly supports a long-term continuation of the subsidy, to help provide certainty to businesses, boost the clean-energy sector and play a role in addressing climate change.

Jewell pointed to long-term subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and said the same type of support needs to be provided to clean energy.

"The playing field needs to be leveled," she said. "You don't want boom-and-bust" cycles that expiring credits will bring. "These businesses want to employ and train people and be sustainable."

Political realities, however, may dictate otherwise, as Republican-controlled Congress has shown no willingness to renew the credit thus far.

'Popping up . . . everywhere'

Ian Howard has seen the future, and it is solar power.

The Bay Shore man drove to Bohemia this month to apply for one of the 50 jobs being offered by a national solar installer, Princeton, N.J.-based NRG Home Solar, as it boosts its Long Island presence.

"I see them popping up on houses everywhere," Howard said of the solar panels. "It's the future, it's growth." He was looking for a job in sales, installation, whatever NRG offered. "The benefits are pretty good," he said.

"Over the next year or so, we're looking to double our business," said Jeff Lake, director of talent acquisition for NRG, which already has 85 employees on the Island.

The company, which installs systems for Home Depot, isn't alone. Sunrun, another national player, is opening a new branch office in Hauppauge, with plans to hire 80 people.

SolarCity, the San Mateo, California, solar-leasing giant, already has 240 employees here, and it recently opened a second office in Bethpage with a regional design center. It launched its presence here in 2013 with a Hauppauge warehouse and office, now home to 180 employees. Its parent plans to open a massive solar-panel manufacturing plant in Buffalo by late next year.

"Long Island is really a great market for solar," said Lee Keshishian, SolarCity's vice president of East Coast operations. He cited the Island's "great housing stock, with density and subdivisions, allowing us to do a lot of installs and ability to cover a lot of roofs," with generally higher income levels and "people looking to save money on their electric bill."

"We're very confident there's a lot of upside and room to grow," he said.

SolarCity has been among the more aggressive leasing companies operating on the Island, but local installers who established the business are competing head to head, and most say they are doing very well.

"It's crazy," said Mike Bailis, vice president of SUNation in Oakdale, one of the largest local players. "I can't get enough good people. We've doubled the business in capacity, and revenue. The biggest problem I'm having is just getting [building] permits."

SUNation's 2014 revenue is set to more than double this year, he said, to $20 million-plus, while installations also will double to more than 600, up from 300 in 2014. The company just bought a 20,000- square-foot building in Ronkonkoma and has 70 employees, double last year's head count.

Volume a key to survival

Like his larger national rivals, Bailis said SUNation is pushing sales volume by increasing its installation capacity, to offset tighter profit margins. Higher volume has allowed him to deal directly with manufacturers to buy panels and other equipment, thus lowering costs.

"We drew the line a long time ago," he said. "Either go big or go home. The only way we can make it work is to do volume. I'm already contracted with other companies to do installation work. I can install faster, cheaper than they can possibly do."

But even not-so-large companies are prospering. Van Nostrand, of Energy By Choice, which has nine employees, said he just completed his largest installation to date, a 177,000-watt system for Delta Computing, a computer servicing company in Farmingdale.

Van Nostrand said his business has doubled in three years, and he's seen the industry expand rapidly in that time. He credits on-bill financing, which provides state-backed loans to fund systems with payments that can't exceed prior electric bills; it's available to customers with lower credit scores than some banks will lend to.

"There's not a person I've met who thinks the cost of utility-driven electricity is going down," he said. "When they do solar, they get a payment schedule that is fixed, they know it's not going to change." And once they pay off the loan, they own the system, he said.

But expiration of the federal tax credit could change the dynamics, Van Nostrand and other solar experts say.

"If the feds don't do something with the tax credit and the state isn't in a position to up their role in the tax credit math, the industry is going to suffer," he said.

Mike Voltz, director of renewable energy and energy efficiency for PSEG Long Island, said that while some programs are poised to sunset, PSEG may be able to help by bolstering others. The state-funded utility rebate that is expected to run out by next summer could be extended if PSEG gets approval to shift some unused commercial rebate dollars into the residential sector. PSEG is also planning to propose a demonstration project that could extend the on-bill financing program beyond its April expiration, by using private financing companies rather than state-backed loans.

And while he expects that expiration of the federal credit will lead to a slowdown, he doesn't expect it to be a death blow.

"I definitely think there will be a slowdown," Voltz said. But "it's a healthy industry right now. There certainly is more than enough work for everyone. And in 2014 and 2015 we've just exploded."

Lanza of the Long Island Solar Energy Industry Association, who also operates Harvest Power of Bay Shore, said cutting costs will be key to surviving the slowdown, if it happens.

"The key to survival is going to be economies of scale in 2017," he said, expressing concern that if the big subsidies expire, layoffs will follow shortly thereafter.

Bailis of SUNation said solar installers have ridden the ups and downs of the business here and will ride out any potential loss of the federal tax credit. He's already working to push commercial sales to a greater portion of his business, because the federal tax credit that is expiring in the residential realm will continue at a lower 10 percent rate in the commercial sector. "We're scrappy. We're just going to go out there and fight for the business," he said. "We're chameleons, we change with the business. "

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