If you're thinking about getting a LIPA-subsidized solar-energy system before the end of the year, be prepared to get in line - and possibly rejected.

After suspending the popular solar rebate program on Sept. 9 because funding ran out, the Long Island Power Authority is working on a plan to reinstitute it that is drawing some criticism.

On Oct. 1, at 8 a.m., LIPA plans to begin taking applications via e-mail for solar rebates on a first-come, first-served basis. The authority says it is still deciding whether to make the entire $1.75 million in new funding available all at once or in three separate blocks over the last three months of the year. The latter plan, already being publicized on LIPA's website, is being criticized by local solar installers, who say it will limit the total number of new customers to between 25 and 50 for each of the next three months. LIPA this year has funded an average 135 a month through August.

Solar contractors at a meeting with LIPA last week said they were told the money would be disbursed in the three-block program.

"We all had questions and nobody was happy," said Michael Diehl, owner of Cantiague Electric Solar Installers in Westbury, of last week's meeting with LIPA.

Michael Deering, LIPA's vice president for environment, said the authority hasn't finalized the plan. "We want to work with the industry to come up with the best way of trying to allocate" the money, for which LIPA is seeking federal and state reimbursement, he said.

LIPA this year has already cut the rebate amount in half - to $1.75 per watt from $3.50 last December. The reduction means customers pay more of the average $50,000-$60,000 cost of a system, though panel costs have come down.

Some expect the pent-up demand since the rebate was shut down Sept. 9 to lead to an explosion of new applications on October first.

"It's going to run out in the first minute, and everybody else is going to get a rejection letter," predicted Diehl.

LIPA's 2010 budget for solar rebates was just over $14 million; when funds began drying up in the spring, New York State kicked in another $6 million. But the nearly $21 million was gone by September.

Deering said LIPA will use money in its environmental budget to fund the added $1.75 million in rebates as it works to secure more money from state and federal sources.

Gordian Raacke, executive director of Renewable Energy Long Island, a LIPA-funded green-energy promoter, praised LIPA for extending the popular program, but said the three-block plan for divvying it up could lead to havoc. Contractors won't be able to guarantee to customers that the LIPA funds will be available.

"For me, it doesn't make much sense," said Raacke. "The uncertainty caused by this is very bad for any business, but particularly for an emerging market like solar."

Diehl said limiting rebates now when the Obama administration has been pushing renewables to revive the economy sends a mixed message to customers.

"With the economy like this, it's a shame to run out of rebate money," he said.

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