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Editorial: Seek a solar solution in Suffolk

The administration of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone

The administration of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone wants to back out of plans to install thousands of solar panels at its county parking lot at the Ronkonkoma train station, shown here, to avoid interfering with plans for a regional transit and housing hub. (April 12, 2012) Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

Energy innovation and downtown revival are pivotal to Long Island's future economy. So it was a rude shock when new Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone found that two goals he supports were pitted against one another at the Ronkonkoma Long Island Rail Road station. Resolution was a better route than conflict, to ensure the success of the region's most promising transit-oriented development project.

As Babylon supervisor, Bellone pushed both energy efficiency and downtown revitalization -- in his case, in Wyandanch. But at one of his first meetings as county executive, he learned that solar might block revitalization at the Ronkonkoma Hub. This collaboration between the towns of Brookhaven and Islip aims to turn the area near the station into a model of mixed-use development, with retail, restaurants and housing -- probably both north and south of the tracks.

But moving ahead with the county's admirable solar energy project -- up to 17 megawatts at seven sites -- would cause a problem. One of the sites is in the parking area south of the station. Bellone decided that solar arrays at that one site would thwart mixed-use development south of the tracks.

His decision to seek a change initiated a complex situation. The county has a lease agreement with enXco, the San Diego firm chosen by the Long Island Power Authority to develop the 17 MW. LIPA has agreed to buy power from enXco, and the firm has agreed to provide it.

LIPA doesn't want its customers hurt. So the county and enXco couldn't move the solar panels to a site where connecting to LIPA's grid would cost ratepayers more. And enXco has already spent money on design at the Ronkonkoma site.

So crafting a deal to make everyone whole will be tough. The Brentwood campus of Suffolk County Community College has emerged as an alternate site, but nothing is final yet.

Bellone is right to look for a way to move the solar panels, to clear the way for the full development of the Ronkonkoma hub. Whether he succeeds will be a good test of his leadership -- and of enXco's good will.