By Benjamin Fang
A panel of energy experts spoke glowingly about the future of the expanding solar sector at an event last month at Queens College hosted by the Queens Chamber of Commerce’s Energy Committee.
The event brought together industry leaders who spoke about government programs, the insurance side of energy, and access to capital.
Marshall Haimson, founder and president of E-Capital Insurance Services and co-chair of the committee, said the goal of the committee is to make the industry more transactional, to become more coherent, and work toward implementing more projects. The committee boasts three working groups: Energy Efficiency, Environmental and Renewables.
“The energy sector in this area is growing explosively due to continued improvements in the regulatory environment, the technology, and the general economics of these projects,” he said. “The momentum is absolutely tremendous.”
The panel was held just across the street from the Georgetown Mews garden cooperatives, where solar panels were installed on 32 buildings. After the event, attendees toured the site to better understand the scope of that particular project.
“This project is emblematic of the type of project we’re going to be seeing hopefully soon around Flushing and the borough,” Haimson said.
The panel was moderated by Stephen Owens, founder and manager of Sol Alliance, a solar consulting group. Owens said New York City was the first city to have an electrical grid for centralized power, but New York state is currently in midst of an ambitious “energy transformation” to convert to a new distributive model funded by clean energy.
Part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s vision is implemented through NY-Sun, a program whose goal is to deploy $1 billion to help the state reach 50 percent renewable energy by 2030.
NY-Sun program director David Sandbank said it’s vital to reform energy policies because the current utility infrastructure, compared to other industries like communications and computing, is “completely antiquated and very expensive to upkeep.”
In New York City, officials spend billions of dollars for maintenance on the electric infrastructure, he said. The key is to produce electricity in the city.
“We generate a lot of electricity upstate and bring it down here. it’s not cheap to do it,” Sandbank said. “Solar is a great opportunity in New York City to put the source of generation where the load actually is.”
He noted that residential solar projects are “booming” in the city. NY-Sun sees 500 to 600 applications per month in the residential market alone. “That is something that’s working very well,” he said.
The challenge is on the commercial side, including issues of surface area for solar panels, permitting, and interconnection issues. However, progress has been made. Sandbank said the year-over-year increase for commercial projects was 170 percent. “A big uptick, but still not enough,” he said.
The state established a policy working group to bring together stakeholders and solve some the big issues while assisting local municipal governments on solar policies.
“When you add all this together, the amount of solar we want to put on the roofs in New York City is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of load that needs to be provided in the city,” he said. “It’s not going to be a problem, it’s just getting everybody on board and coordinated.”
William Oberkehr, New York State Solar Ombudsman for Sustainable CUNY, works with city and state agencies to streamline the process for projects. The organization has been in operation for 11 years.
Oberkehr said their role in the agency space has evolved. Initially, they were working on creating a “solar roadmap,” producing guidelines of what is needed for a solar project.
“Now that the solar market is a bit more mature, our focus has switched to much more complex problems that take more time,” he said.
Every hour he spends working with the Department of Buildings , Fire Department or Department of City Planning, Oberkehr said he believes they’re “making huge strides instead of solving small problems.”
Owens added that the financial opportunity behind solar energy is tremendous, and government incentives are only a piece of it.
“It’s not only cheaper from day one to source your electricity from solar on your own roof,” he said, “but once that financing of that asset is over, you have free electricity long term.”