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COVID-19 wallops New York green-energy sector

Workers installing solar panels on a residential homes

Workers installing solar panels on a residential homes roof. Credit: Getty Images/powerofforever

Energy-efficiency work has stopped, new rooftop solar installations are largely grounded and state and local budgets have a new factor weighing on them: COVID-19.

The coronavirus pandemic has walloped Long Island’s green-energy sector with the same impact it has other industries.

Local green-energy companies say the broadside comes at a particularly delicate time. The sector was getting a second wind with new PSEG and LIPA solar and heat-pump programs -- along with a major lift from a state agenda that calls for a carbon-free electric grid by 2040.

Still, some businesses said they saw a dip in residential rooftop solar installations in the first two months of the year, as federal tax incentives fell by 4 percent, even before the pandemic.

The question under consideration now is just how the pandemic will impact future growth of green-energy work. 

LIPA and PSEG Long Island have been keeping open lines of communication with impacted contractors, and are working on ways to help green-energy companies in the pandemic era, officials said.

That includes allowing virtual site inspections for certain jobs, beefing up online training for green-energy and extending expiration dates for certain rebates into the summer, said Mike Voltz, PSEG's director of energy efficiency and renewables.

PSEG operates the local electric system under contract to LIPA. 

"We're trying to assist during this period but we're also planning for the other side," after the lockdown, said Tom Falcone, LIPA's chief executive.

The lost spring months won't be easy to make up, he said, but "we're looking at ways to stay on our [green-energy] goals for the year."

The big question, he and others say, is how the economy rebounds after the lockdown. 

"What we do know is we're in a very severe recession right now," said Falcone. He said it was too soon to tell whether that recession will last and impact critical green-energy investment and lending.

While LIPA expenses resulting from the pandemic, including suspension of late fees for customers, are increasing, that doesn't mean the renewable budget will be impacted, Falcone said.

But the dozens of contractors who install solar panels, geothermal systems and home batteries across the region say they have had to take a hard look at their businesses.

SUNation Solar Systems, the Island’s largest homegrown solar installer, based in Ronkonkoma, last month furloughed or laid off 130 of its staff of more than 160, and has begun making decisions about how to right-size once it gets the green light to restart business.

Initially, at least, the company won’t be the same as before, said chief executive Scott Maskin.

“We’re planning on bringing back a significant number of people but the market will dictate how many,” Maskin said. “I do not anticipate bringing everybody back all at once.”

He said he had 80 rooftop solar jobs backed up and ready to start May 4 — before Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that nonessential businesses would have to stay closed at least until May 15.

Maskin and other green-energy contractors expressed concern that loan approvals and building permits could begin to expire, giving consumers reasons to cancel jobs.

If the restart is delayed until June, “It will be catastrophic,” Maskin said.

David Schieren, chief executive for EmPower Solar, of Island Park, said he recently committed to May 18 delivery of solar panels.

Schieren had planned for this to be a record year for the company, notably in commercial installations, and hopes to get back to work soon.

“This clearly is a shock to everyone’s business model,” Schieren said. “The immediate impact is a very acute challenge for every business.”

The company has furloughed 52 of its 86 people.

“The macro economy is going to suffer for this,” Schieren said. “Where does that place us? We were planning for growth. We do have an amazing pipeline for 2020, but 2021 has been revised down significantly.”

New York State has experienced the loss of an estimated 4,800 clean energy jobs during the pandemic, according to BW Research Partnership.

State officials said they were working to buttress the green-energy industry they have nurtured under plans for an all-green energy sector in the coming decades.

Last month, top state leaders sent a letter to green-energy companies acknowledging the “public health and economic crises” from the pandemic “will bring serious challenges to every sector of our clean energy economy.”

Alicia Barton, chief executive of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, said the state has continued to communicate with green-energy companies throughout the shutdown, holding forums and seeking input on how best to help.

NYSERDA has extended project completion deadlines “pretty much across the board,” while considering changes to state-backed loan, payment and rebate programs, Barton said. Many of the programs are funded through utility rates.

“We’re trying to help develop tools and strategies all these industries can use going forward,” including guidelines for how to work with new COVID-related safeguards in place, Barton said.

Barton said the state’s big contracts for offshore wind farm projects may see “some delays to certain aspects of work.” However, she said she did not expect delay of completion dates set for 2024.

Stephen Boutwell, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which manages federal offshore water lease areas, said the agency “continues to accept and process” construction and operations plans for offshore project reviews.

The agency "still expects to adhere" to a review schedule for Vineyard Wind, near Massachusetts, which could be the nation's first large-scale project, Boutwell said.

Joe Martens, director of the NY Offshore Wind Alliance, an industry group, said COVID restrictions have only temporarily slowed progress for three state offshore wind projects, chiefly idling surveying vessels.

“We hope it’s only a couple of months' delay,” he said. 

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