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Ice, snow slides from solar panels damage cars at county lots

A sign in the parking lot of the

A sign in the parking lot of the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge on Jan. 6, 2015. Credit: Ed Betz

Look out below the solar panels for falling ice.

Angled solar systems atop thousands of carports at Suffolk-owned parking lots have spawned the unexpected problem of sliding ice and snow that can damage the vehicles below.

Last winter, the mini-avalanches broke windows on parked vehicles at six public parking lots, including outside the main county building in Hauppauge, according to the county and the company that owned the panels. Energy produced from the panels is sold to the Long Island Power Authority.

Capital Dynamics, the Switzerland-based company that owned the solar panels until last month, paid for the damage, Suffolk County Department of Public Works Director Gil Anderson said. "They paid out any claims and handled any complaints we got," he said. "They took it right on."

The company in December also installed signs warning of the danger of falling ice and snow at the county lots.

Anderson said Capital Dynamics designed the signs. The county gave informal approval after rejecting an earlier sign that "didn't express the gravity of the situation," he said. "I'm told it looked like half a house with a few snowflakes in front of it."

A Capital Dynamics vice president, Anne Pearce, said in a statement that after wintry weather caused a buildup of snow and ice in February, rain and warming temperatures caused the ice and snow to fall. She would not say how many cars were damaged.

Anderson and Vanessa Baird-Streeter, a spokeswoman for the county, also said they didn't know how many vehicles were damaged, although they said the company quickly reimbursed car owners and took responsibility.

Capital Dynamics also had agreed to clear the solar panels if more than 4 inches of snow fell, but it sold the solar carports last month to Missouri-based SunEdison. A spokeswoman for the new owners said last week the company was still assessing the situation and could not comment.

Last winter was the first time the solar panels became ice slides since they were installed in 2011, Anderson said. The solar carports were constructed by San Diego-based enXco -- now known as EDF Renewable Energy -- in 2011 around the H. Lee Dennison building, outside the Legislature Building in Hauppauge, the Deer Park and Brentwood Long Island Rail Road stations, Riverhead county complex and Cohalan court complex in Central Islip.

EnXco signed a 20-year, $123-million contract with LIPA and the county, negotiated under former County Executive Steve Levy, to produce 17 megawatts of energy, enough to power nearly 1,800 homes.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone blocked construction at a seventh county-owned lot, at the Ronkonkoma train station, because it would conflict with a planned development project there. The company sued the county in 2013 for $12.5 million. The lawsuit is pending.

The county is paid $315,000 a year for the use of its parking lots.

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