Bringing Solar Energy to Orange County

NY state programs help provide incentives and education for those going solar
July 15, 2015 Updated: July 17, 2015

WARWICK, N.Y.—Residents of Orange got the opportunity on July 8 to learn more about whether solar energy was right for them. Solar Hudson Valley sponsored events in Warwick and Goshen to promote financial incentives for residents who want their energy needs satisfied by an alternative energy source.

Warwick resident Michael Helme opened up his home to anyone interested in seeing how solar energy works in a residential installation. Helme built a pole barn structure in his backyard that fits the requirements for the direction and pitch needed for a solar installation.

His solar installer was Chris Patak of Hudson Solar. Helme’s home had used both gas and electric. He converted everything to electric so solar could provide all or most of his energy needs. “He is actually 110 percent covered,” Patak said.

Most new solar homeowners see direct savings within a few months.

Helme made a significant financial investment to go solar. Patak said the incentives helped. “With the state rebate and the tax credits that he gets—when you own you get all the tax credits—that takes 60 percent of the cost. I want to say his bottom line cost was $6,000, after tax credits.”

In Orange County, the program is focusing on the Goshen and Warwick areas, so-called hub communities. 

“Goshen’s home and small-business owners are enthusiastic about the opportunity to solarize our community, house-by-house and business-by-business,” said Kate Schmidt, a planner with the Orange County Department of Planning.

Growing Momentum

The Solarize Hudson Valley program makes it easier and more affordable for homes and small businesses to go solar. The program works with selected installers and offers discounts. The installers selected for the campaign are Direct Energy Solar, SolarCity, and New York State Solar Farm.

The Solarize Hudson Valley’s “solar ambassadors” give Orange Country home owners and small-business owners a chance to learn if their buildings are a good fit for solar electricity, and decide if they want to purchase or lease systems.

“I believe that renewable energy sources such as solar power can play an important role in the county’s energy mix,” Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus said. “Solar energy is earth-friendly and creates economic benefits for local residents and businesses. It serves as a logical way to capitalize on the county’s Energize NY financing program, which we were the first county in the state to adopt.”

Solarize group purchasing discounts of up to 15 percent are available through Nov. 15, 2015. The program benefits businesses and homeowners who choose to go solar by bringing communities together with prequalified installation firms and educational programming.

In 2013, New York had the fourth-highest average electricity prices in the United States. “There is a lot of impetus behind this and the goal is really simply to increase the solar energy in New York State,” said John Wackman, program manager for Solarize Hudson Valley. Most new solar homeowners see direct savings within a few months.

Roger Moss, a Warwick resident and volunteer for Sustainable Hudson Valley, said people have the wrong notion about not enough sun in upstate New York: “One resource we don’t have a limit on is sunlight. Contrary to what most Americans thought at one time, there is more sunlight in this part of New York state than there is in most of Germany.”

“The German energy codes of 1998 are what the United States adopted in 2014—and they are outdated,” said builder Thom Woglom, who built Helme’s structure after consulting with the homeowner and solar installer. He said Germany, Spain, and India are way ahead of the United States in getting on the solar bandwagon.

In the first quarter of 2015, New York ranked third nationally in new solar capacity. New York trailed only California and Nevada, according to the recently released “U.S. Solar Market Insight Report” compiled by GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) SunShot program published a solarize guidebook, which sets out the essential elements of a successful Solarize campaign. Although communities have their own priorities and goals, successful campaigns have community volunteers select installation contractors through a competitive process.

A trusted local organization underwrites community-led outreach and education. Neighbors can distribute fliers, build a website, speak at workshops, and initiate word-of-mouth to get involved.

The guidelines emphasize the importance of a deadline. “A Solarize campaign is a limited-time offer, creating a sense of urgency among residents who don’t want to miss a good deal,” according to the DOE’s guidelines.

Solarize Hudson Valley’s Nov. 15 deadline gives homeowners or businesses time to consider their options, get their questions answered, check their financial situation and available incentives, then go ahead, said SHV’s Program Director Melissa Everett.

Another Side

Although the Solarize campaign promotes solar’s many benefits, there can be a downside. Woglom, said that at this point in the industry, some homeowners don’t like the aesthetics.

“People don’t want solar on their roof. They don’t want to see it as they pull up the driveway.” That notion is gradually changing as more and more choose the solar option, he said.

If solar panels are installed on a roof, and the roof needs to be replaced, removing and reinstalling the panels adds a significant cost to the new roof.

If a home with solar panels on the roof is sold, and the buyer doesn’t like the aesthetics of the solar panels, someone will need to pay for removing the panels and then fixing the section of the roof where the panels had been.

In order to go solar, a homeowner or business has to make a conscious choice, complete a stack of paperwork, find a good installer, and apply for available financial incentives. Solarize Hudson Valley has tried to minimize this by preselecting reputable installers, doing the paperwork, and arranging the incentives.

Perhaps the biggest obstacles are the upfront expense and a solid credit rating. The state has been giving rebates and credits for almost 10 years. The incentives help, but they are slowing drying up. Smaller installations can run around $15,000 without financial incentives.

There is a growing movement toward residential areas using a commonly owned solar unit. This could be a possible solution for renters and low-income individuals who believe in alternate energy sources.

There is a growing movement toward residential areas using a commonly owned solar unit.

More in the Offing

Other community organizations have or will have solar as part of their energy operations. At the Matamoras July 7 borough meeting, borough Councilman Kevin Rose proposed a solar car park at Airport Park in Matamoras, Pennsylvania. Cars could park under a roof of solar panels.

The Warwick school district just approved a major solar installation on July 6, according to Moss. With the planned installation, he said the school district is planning to sell power back to Orange and Rockland Utility at 18 cents per kilowatt.

The district plans to install a 2 megawatt solar array to provide 100 percent of its energy needs. It will be located behind one of the schools in a large field that was once a hayfield. “It will generate a tremendous amount of revenue to the school per year and is estimated to reduce their electrical costs by a six-figure number per year,” Moss said.

TheWarwick School District plans to install a 2 megawatt solar array to provide 100 percent of its energy needs.

The Falun Gong community called Dragon Springs in Cuddebackville awaits approval from Mount Hope for a large solar installation to support its energy requirements. A ground-mount installation for 5 Spoke Creamery in Goshen provides 100 percent of the energy needs for its cheese-making operation.

The Solarize Hudson Valley campaign comes from a partnership between Sustainable Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountainkeeper. The two nonprofits get funding from New York State Energy Research & Development Authority for the campaign.

Solarize campaigns are taking off across the state with support from Gov. Cuomo’s NY-SUN, first outlined in the governor’s 2012 State of the State Address. In late 2014, Cuomo announced Community Solar NY, an effort to make solar more affordable through community-based initiatives.

“New York state is truly a national leader in this,” Wackman said.

Solarize representatives will be at other local events during the summer. All residents of surrounding communities are welcome at Solarize outreach events, which combine education, sociability, and the opportunity to ask representatives questions.

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