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New federal funds for LIPA solar rebate program

Gary Minnick, owner of Go Solar Incorporated in

Gary Minnick, owner of Go Solar Incorporated in Aquebogue, examines a solar panel. The state is seeking to restart the LIPA home solar energy rebates. (Oct. 25, 2010) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

The Department of Energy Tuesday approved a request for the Long Island Power Authority to use $8.3 million in federal stimulus funds to restart a popular consumer solar-panel rebate program, state officials said.

The program will start accepting applications Dec. 1, officials said.

The program, which subsidizes around a third of the cost of systems typically priced up to $60,000, had been suspended since funding ran out Oct. 1. Some 1,100 customers have signed up this year alone - more than in the first 10 years of the program combined. All told, 3,498 customers have received LIPA rebates.

Solar installers, some of whom had laid off workers because of the funding suspension, hailed the announcement Tuesday by Gov. David A. Paterson and LIPA.

"Obviously, anything that restarts the program I'm excited about because there's been a significant drop-off in our ability to close deals," said Michael Bailis, owner of SUNation Solar Systems in Water Mill.

Federal funding for the home solar rebates was part of a $15 million federal stimulus package announcement by Paterson Tuesday. In addition to the $8.3 million that will be available for the solar Pioneer rebate program, another $6.7 million will be earmarked to connect a separate large-scale solar energy project to the LIPA grid. The latter project by LIPA, Suffolk County and contractor enXco Inc. will see solar panels atop car ports in rail stations and county office buildings.

When LIPA's 2010 budget of around $20 million for solar programs ran out Oct. 1, the authority, the governor, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and Assemb. Marc Alessi (D-Wading River) requested that some of the federal funds be reallocated to the home solar program.

Sail Van Nostrand, chairman of the Long Island Solar Energy Industry Association, said high demand for the program and the need for more funding were "testimony to the increasing public awareness that solar energy is a good investment and good for the environment."

Alessi, in a tight race to keep his Assembly seat, said he "breathed a sigh of relief" when he heard the program had been restored, but he raised questions about future funding. "We should explore all options to make solar as viable as possible," he said.

For now, local solar installers were relieved.

"That's cool," said Gary Minnick, owner of GoSolar, an installer in Aquebogue. GoSolar had postponed work on around 20 new installation jobs until January because of the suspension. Now, Minnick said, he'll call customers to start work in December.

Bailis of SUNation said the Oct. 1 suspension "kind of killed sales closings," leading some installers to guarantee a LIPA rebate when the program had been scheduled to restart in January. "This will take a lot of pressure off the January 1 restart date," he said. Minnick of GoSolar said he and other solar installers, while welcoming the additional funding, face other challenges based on a booming solar business. "There's a shortage of solar modules right now," he said.

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