How’s the sun doing?

An interim report on local solar energy

by Paul Smart
June 30, 2011 01:34 PM | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The sun shines on Sunflower. Photo by Dion Ogust.
view slideshow (2 images)
Jason Spiotta of Solar Generation has climbed to the peak of the Woodstock Highway garage roof to get the cellular phone reception he needs to talk to me about the latest job he and partner Todd Koelmel are working on. He’s pleased to report that a third of the town’s newest system has been turned on and is working.

Two weeks ago, the New York City Solar America City Partnership, comprised of the City University of New York, the NYC Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, and the NYC Economic Development Corporation, completed a new map of all the rooftops in the city, pinpointing those that can sustain solar panels similar to the one’s now going up on the Woodstock Highway garage, and already up on Town Hall back on Tinker Street.

How is solar energy doing in and around Woodstock, in terms of popularity, payback, and future planning?

“I am actually doing some cost comparisons while we talk,” says Bob Whitcomb of Sunflower, who covered most of the roof over his Bradley Meadows business with Solar Generation’s help almost two years ago. “I’m in the process of renewing my Central Hudson contract and wanted to look at usage and cost.”

When he first put in the panels, Whitcomb had some trepidation about the high costs involved. His primary motivation, at the time, seemed to be as much the feel-good quotient of publicizing energy-cutting actions as any savings.

“My wife and business partner, Roz Balkin, and I have been concerned and actively focused on environmental issues for many years. We have done a lot with recycling, packaging reduction, and energy reduction at home, and at Sunflower,” he wrote of his 33-year old business then. “We have both investigated alternative energy actively for the past 10 years and beyond. So often we have looked at the roof over Sunflower and thought about capturing the energy that descends upon it…”

Whitcomb noted that before installing solar panels, and after exchanging his coolers for more efficient ones — and working out a Green exchange program through CH Energy — he found his business using an average 26,000 kilowatts hours a month. Since the solar panels, that figure’s dropped to 16,000 KW hours a month, a saving of 10,000 KW per hour each month.

The store owner runs figures on his calculator as we talk. He figures he’s averaging around $850 savings a month. His original outlay, after NESERDA grant help and federal and state tax rebates, worked out to about $50,000 total for a 32 KW system.

“I had though the payback would take ten years but at this rate, it’ll be about five,” Whitcomb says. “And there’s been almost no maintenance beyond some snow removal a couple of times.”


Market downturn

Spiotta, speaking from the roof at the Highway Garage, at first says it’s not easy to summarize recent activity in the solar market.

“We had a pretty severe downturn so it’s a little tricky. Not as much was done as was possible,” he says, noting how some of the incentive funding was pulled back a bit. “There’s still a great deal of help paying for the systems, but the question of what’s affordable to whom remains a question.”

Nevertheless, he points to about a dozen projects completed since the installation of the Sunflower roof panels in 2009, and another 60 to 70 within the overall area.

The biggest project to date, Spiotta points out, has been a 100 KW system put in at the Total Tennis campus just north of Saugerties. The KTD monastery has put in a 50 KW system, Zen Mountain Monastery has a 30KW system, and the Woodstock Day School put in a 14 KW, on-ground system.

“Overall, in terms of the size of the systems we’ve put in, it breaks down about 50/50 between residential and commercial,” he adds. “The first we ever put in, over in Glenford, is almost paid off at this point.”

Spiotta says that grants and rebates still make up between 60 and 70 percent of the cost of a system. And although at first Solar Generation was also doing solar-thermal systems, they’ve since stopped because of the better rebate situation entailed.

Similarly, where a number of people were wondering whether solar systems would push a revival in electric heat locally, he’s found that “most people come to solar energy with an economic frame of mind, and then an environmental frame, considering their payout as though they were simply buying electricity in bulk.”

Publicity, and requests for job estimates, have tended to come in via word of mouth, Spiotta adds. People see one system and get interested. And many of those systems, such as the one going up at the Highway Garage, are funded to be positioned in the most publicly-visible fashion to help advertise the whole movement.

But has business grown?

Spiotta says that whereas he and  Koelmel had thought there might be ever-increasing business in their field two years ago, things have stayed steady, with a slight drop in competition amongst some of the smaller installers.

“Some operations pop up and then disappear,” he says. “Others, like Larry Brown over in Olive, seem to have been around for ever.”

Brown, he adds, was very instrumental in helping get them started when they entered the business last decade.

What about the ups and downs of the entire concept of retooling the Hudson Valley as a center for the solar industry, we ask. To which Spiotta replies with a breakdown of those companies making specific parts, and solar cells, those assembling systems, and those like Solar Generation actually installing systems.

He worries about the political nature of funding cuts to some regional businesses, noting how he likes to have his modules made by Solar Tech Renewables, at Tech City in Kingston. But there’s no incentive for such localized buying.

“One of the things we keep pointing out to NYSERDA is how they need to incentivize local equipment manufacturing and sales,” Spiotta adds.

Local incentives?

Which starts to reflect another movement, within town government, to provide similar incentives towards the solarizing of Woodstock.

“One idea would be to encourage solar panels and other structures some leeway through regulation exemptions,” wrote Woodstock woodworker and Planning Board member Paul Henderson in a recent memo announcing the recent NYC solar mapping work, and now making the rounds for discussion. “For instance, if there is an outstanding violation of sorts related to either code or regs, I believe any and all Green technologies should be completely exempt from such tedious and unnecessary scrutiny in order to achieve some sense of Woodstock’s zero-carbon or Green initiatives. Another may be in the definition- perhaps such structures could be exempted from the definition of ‘accessory’ structures and simply be defined as ‘necessary’ structures.” (See related story, Page 10.)

“This might be a way to evaluate how Woodstock is doing in various projects that are useful and valuable to our future as a town that cares,” came one of a growing number of replies, none yet official, to Henderson’s missive… and the mapping news. “Do we know where our solar panels are or other worthwhile projects and are we doing anything to encourage their growth?”

Town supervisor Jeff Moran, after asking that John Calhoun get credit for engineering the Highway Garage’s new solar system, and Angela Sweet kudos for wading through the complexities of NYSERDA funding, noted that the fact that funding was now “less robust” might be a hindrance.

“We’re always looking for ways to reduce energy usage,” he said. “Maybe if we do a new town hall…”

As for the zero-carbon initiative Henderson had referenced, the soon-to-retire supervisor pointed out how the town’s many trees bring local carbon footprints close to nothing, as well as how some newer projects, such as a task force studying biodigestion at the landfill, are taking precedence.

Mapping the terrain 

Back on the garage, meanwhile, Spiotta talks about how he’d been called by the directors of the New York Conservatory of the Arts last year. They now own and operate the revived Woodstock Playhouse. Moreover, he adds, commercial jobs tend to have as much impact, and less problems, than municipal ones. He’d heard about the city mapping… and used similar methods, online, to gauge jobs when contacted for estimates.

The city solar map, it turns out, cost $210,000 and was financed by the federal Department of Energy’s Solar America Cities program. The city provided $450,000 for the flights involved, with energy company help.

Just maybe, I seem to hear the guys at Solar Generation, and Bob Whitcomb, and Paul Henderson, starting to think…++

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