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Bystryn: NY still in the shade on solar

Photo Credit: TMS illustration by Mark Weber

Marcia Bystryn is president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, one of the state's largest environmental advocacy organizations.


Last year was a very good one for solar energy. A new report from the Solar Energy Industries Association found that the United States installed more solar capacity in 2011 than in any previous year. With 1,855 megawatts of new photovoltaic capacity coming on line (enough to power more than 370,000 homes), last year's total more than doubled the previous record from 2010. Solar is now producing between 1 percent and 3 percent of the nation's total energy output.

But the solar picture isn't nearly as bright in New York.

In 2011, the Empire State added just 60 megawatts of solar, and we've fallen behind our regional peers. Pennsylvania installed 88 megawatts last year, and New Jersey, a whopping 313, even though its energy market and geographic size are smaller than New York's. New Jersey now ranks second overall in total solar capacity the nation.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey appear to recognize that solar power is one way to create thousands of local jobs in a tough economy. New York must follow suit as soon as possible.

Many of our leaders in Albany support such an effort. In Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's State of the State address in early January, he laid out the framework of a proposal that would expand solar energy in New York by increasing the amount of energy created through its Renewable Portfolio Standard program. Bills in the Assembly and Senate to create a new renewable energy credit have bipartisan support from a majority of legislators in each house. And, in November, a coalition of labor unions, environmental organizations like ours and businesses launched a campaign to work with Albany leaders to implement a new solar program this year.

With the 2012-13 budget essentially done, our lawmakers in Albany must now turn to legislative priorities like this one, before they close the books on the year.

To succeed, New York's new solar energy initiative needs to provide certainty and be big enough to be meaningful. If solar companies are going to invest in our state, they need to know that the program will be there for more than just a few years. The scope of New York's effort will also make a critical difference. Obviously, a bigger program creates more jobs. But it also helps to further drive down the cost of solar energy, which is already decreasing. In 2010, solar installation costs nationwide dropped by 17 percent.

There's no question that Long Island is going to need more energy -- and soon. The New York Independent System Operator, which helps manage the state's electric grid, forecasts that the overall demand for electricity will grow between 8 percent and 10 percent, and peak demand by as much as 12 percent, by 2020.

That might seem far away, but the good news is that solar energy can create jobs for Long Islanders right now. Most of the Island's energy dollars are spent on oil and gas from other regions and overseas. By expanding the local solar market, Long Island can generate more of its own energy at home and ease congestion on transmission lines. The solar industry now employs 100,000 people across the country, growing almost 10 times as fast as the economy as a whole. And since most of the jobs created are in the installation of the solar panels, they cannot be outsourced overseas.

Long Island is already helping to power New York's small solar market. A new 32-megawatt project -- the largest in the Northeast -- went online last year at Brookhaven National Laboratory. More than 4,000 Long Island residences and businesses have gone solar. There is a good network of solar installers in Nassau and Suffolk, as well as educational institutions that can train this new generation of clean-energy workers.

The only thing standing between New York and significant growth in the solar industry is ourselves. That's why it's so important for our elected officials to come to consensus and move us forward on a plan that can support the growing solar industry and create green jobs here on Long Island and across the state.