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Solar Island: Study sees vast potential to expand sun power on Long Island

Sunrise Power Solutions, a solar installer in Hauppauge,

Sunrise Power Solutions, a solar installer in Hauppauge, is currently working on carport solar arrays for Smithtown and Brentwood School districts. Seen here, the solar carport system at Smithtown High School West. Credit: Sunrise Power Solutions

Long Island, already a leader in the state for home and commercial solar-power installations, can increase its solar output exponentially by exploiting sites already impacted by development such as capped landfills and commercial rooftops, according to a newly released study.

But some say limitations of the Long Island grid, rising interconnection costs and other factors currently limit that potential.

The analysis by environmental groups, The Nature Conservancy and Defenders of Wildlife, pinpoints sites that can be developed for mid- to large-scale solar arrays that could add a potential 20,000 megawatts of solar power to the grid. At present, solar makes up around 800 megawatts of LIPA’s 5,800 megawatt generation capacity. The 20,000 megawatts is nearly four times Long Island’s demand during peak time, and enough to power 4.8 million homes — well beyond the local need. The low-impact sites that would not disrupt forests or require new construction include brownfields such as capped landfills, parking lots, some regional airports and commercial-building rooftops.

The report includes an interactive solar road map that shows hundreds of locations of the proposed sites.

The report notes that installing even just a quarter of the total potential large- and mid-size solar projects, or around 5,000 megawatts, by 2030 would cut CO2 emissions by up to 6.7 million tons, the equivalent of taking more than 800,000 cars off the road, while helping the economy by increasing employment. It notes a statewide goal of adding 6,000 megawatts of solar to the state grid by 2025 could lead to an additional 13,600 jobs.

The study’s authors, in an interview, said there are impediments to installing the arrays on some of the properties they’ve identified and that technology enhancements will be needed to help manage such vast amounts of solar power onto Long Island’s grid.

But they say the analysis is a needed starting point, and challenged local leaders to take it up.

"This report shows how Long Island really can become a solar power house," said Jessica Ottney, the conservancy’s New York director of policy and strategy.

The report, Ottney said, has been provided to local and state leaders and regulators as statewide efforts to grow renewable energy as part of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s 100% carbon-free energy mandate by 2040 pushes forward.

The report sees most potential for solar power in Riverhead, where the analysis showed more than 2,500 megawatts can be built — most of it on ground-mounted land. Riverhead has previously pondered policies that sought to slow the expansion of solar after years of utility-scale solar growth.

Other prime solar grounds across Long Island include Southold, where 1,685 megawatts is considered possible, 1,277 megawatts in Southampton and 1,769 in Hempstead. By comparison, it identified only 665 megawatts in Smithtown and 470 in East Hampton.

Stephen Foley, director of new business development for Sunrise Power Solutions, a large-scale solar installer in Hauppauge, said he "couldn’t agree more" with the study’s conclusions. He’s currently working on carport solar arrays for Smithtown and Brentwood School districts and said plans are under development for a dozen more.

Foley said the only current limitations for adding more solar to the grid as the study suggests are the lack of capacity of the grid to handle the additional power, and the high cost to interconnect these new resources. LIPA and the state have already offered proposals for increasing the Long Island grid to eliminate bottlenecks and increase capacity needed for a range of renewables, including wind and solar power.

"The biggest impediments are connectivity issues," Foley said. "We try to connect but the utility says we can’t, or there are significant infrastructure expenses that have to be incurred by the developer." Some landlords, he added, simply won’t put solar on their building rooftops.

LIPA said its transmission upgrade plan will help toward "achieving the state’s goals to increase the amount of offshore wind, solar, and battery storage on Long Island," while costs for the upgrades will be allocated "statewide."

Joe Milillo, chief executive of Long Island Power Solutions, a solar power installer, said his company worked for years to grow larger commercial installations but the economics often held them back. He now focuses chiefly on residential and small commercial projects.

"They just didn’t pencil out," given the large sums building owners wanted to lease their roofs, among other issues, Milillo said. Others such as EmPower Solar and SUNation Solar, have thrived on some of these larger projects.

The report lists strategies for advancing the goal of more medium to large projects, including creating better incentives for installing projects on low-impact locations. It also suggests reducing development costs for the sites, making them less costly to interconnect, and improve access to community solar programs, which allow disparate customers to get discounted power from remotely located arrays.

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