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New York State offering solar tax offset to upstate customers only

Only upstate residents are eligible for special funding

Only upstate residents are eligible for special funding from New York State to help solar-power customers offset a new fee on home rooftop installations. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

New York State is offering special funding to help solar-power customers offset a new fee on home rooftop installations come Jan. 1, but Long Islanders need not apply.

That’s because the special "transition" program will be available only to upstate solar customers, according to a recent letter from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which administers state green-energy funding.

Long Island solar installers, already apoplectic over LIPA's tentative plan to implement the benefit charge on Long Island, weren't happy to hear that the state's "transition" plan, at least for now, does not include Long Island customers. Spokespersons for NYSERDA haven't commented on the apparent discrepancy.

"It's wholly unfair," said Carlo Lanza, chief executive of Harvest Power, a Bay Shore solar installer, adding that the charge itself, if adopted by LIPA, "has the potential to be very damaging to the industry."

The proposed LIPA solar charge would amount to between $5 and $10 a month for systems installed after Jan. 1. Solar installers are worried the charge would discourage new customers, who already face higher system costs due to rising prices for solar panels and equipment, and reductions in the federal tax credits for home systems.

But the state appeared to be sensitive to those factors in a letter to upstate solar interests obtained by Newsday last month.

"To help the solar market make this transition, NYSERDA will be adjusting the NY-Sun incentives for upstate residential projects that are subject to the CBC," the agency said in a "dear stakeholder" letter. "All upstate residential projects receiving the CBC charge will be able to apply for funding in this block."

NYSERDA spokeswoman Kate Muller said the offset funding wouldn't be available to LIPA customers because the programs are LIPA's, not NYSERDA's jurisdiction, but noted the NYSERDA does fund other Long Island-exclusive rebates, such as one for batteries and solar. A former home-solar-only rebate ran out five years ago.

She noted the new benefit charge on Long Island was LIPA's "jurisdiction," and NYSERDA "continues to support the installation of solar on Long Island."

State Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) saw it differently.

"We should be encouraging renewable energy, not discouraging it," he said. "NYSERDA’s failure to provide at least the same solar incentives on Long Island as they are for upstate is unacceptable. It is especially insulting since it is happening at the same time LIPA is attempting to impose a new SOLAR tax on those installing renewable energy systems."

LIPA, in a statement, noted its proposed monthly solar-tax would be the lowest among other state utilities — about 89 cents per system kilowatt size, compared with 92 cents to $1.34 for other utilities.

"Rebates simply aren’t necessary to make rooftop solar attractive on Long Island," LIPA said. "With or without the customer benefit contribution, and with or without rebates, a homeowner would be better off installing rooftop solar on Long Island than almost anywhere else."

But Long Island installers who remain opposed to the charge were even more incensed to hear the state was planning to offset for upstate customers.

"The fact that only upstate is getting a rebate and we're not, I don't get it," said Scott Maskin, chief executive of one of Long Island’s largest installers, SUNation Solar Systems of Ronkonkoma. "Where's the justification?"

Maskin noted that Long Island has contributed more to the state's green-energy goals than any other region.

SUNation is one of dozens of installers and activists who have urged LIPA not to adopt the solar tax, saying sales overall are down on Long Island from 2016 levels, and any new fees send signals to potential buyers to back off. They also cited aggressive goals for solar power in the state’s green-energy portfolio for the next 20 years.

LIPA, which is under no state mandate to institute the so-called customer benefit charge, has signaled its intention to do so Jan. 1, following a public hearing later this month and a board vote in December.

LIPA chief Tom Falcone last month vigorously defended the need for the new fee as necessary to make sure new solar customers pay their fair share of LIPA green energy and low and moderate-income customer discounts, since many solar customers pay little or no usage charges.

LIPA’s rebate for rooftop solar ended years ago, and hasn't been re-funded, even as federal incentives have declined from 30% to 26%, and are set to fall to 22% in 2023.

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