Making Solar Cheaper, But At What Cost To Quality?


Solar energy—almost everyone wants it, but not everyone can afford it.Governor Andrew Cuomo is trying to change this with an energy initiative to reduce the cost of buying and installing solar panels. Communities have been invited to participate in the program, which promises to reduce costs by up to 20 percent, essentially by purchasing in bulk, and several towns and villages on the South Fork have signed on.

Some local renewable energy companies, however, contend there are better ways to reduce the cost of installing the equipment for solar energy. The contractors contend that the governor’s program will mean a drop in the quality of both the products and their installation.

Called Community Solar NY, the state-organized effort is designed to attract a critical mass of homes and businesses to go with the sun, and there are “campaigns” on the South Fork, encompassing the towns of Southampton and East Hampton and the villages of Southampton, Sag Harbor and East Hampton. The governor argues that purchasing solar installations as a large group, rather than as an individual household, will drive down the cost for everyone involved. “Solar power is helping to save money and conserve energy across the state—and one of the best ways for local communities to install solar infrastructure is to come together and take advantage of even more cost-effective rates,” he said in a press release.

The program is also supposed to help remove obstacles that might make people shy away from the solar option, such as having to do a feasibility study or find the right contractor.

The State Energy Research and Development Authority is supporting the initiatives by providing technical assistance, marketing materials and funding, and it has partnered with the 26 “campaigns,” which are managed by community partnerships that include local municipalities, planning organizations, sustainability groups, state legislators, business groups, and Native American tribes, among others.

On the South Fork, the towns of Southampton and East Hampton, and the villages of Southampton, Sag Harbor and East Hampton have all signed on to participate.

“One of our core concerns is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, so the expansion of solar energy in Southampton Town is a pathway for reducing fossil fuels,” said Scott Carlin, co-chair of the Sustainable Southampton Green Advisory Committee, which advises the Southampton Town Board. “Because the price [of solar] is dropping, it becomes more affordable to a larger number of consumers, and that’s something for everyone to be paying attention to more and more.”

Some solar companies voiced their opposition in mid-March, when the Green Advisory Committee asked for their input.

Among those who spoke was John Rocchetta, vice president of sales at Green Logic, a renewable energy company in Southampton. The Community Solar NY program “wouldn’t work well in the industry; it would drive product down and quality down,” he said this week over the phone.

There are three key parts to solar, he explained—materials, labor and overhead. “So where can you cut?” he asked. “Not overhead.

“You can’t cut on the material, you can only cut on quality of material,” he continued. “When you bring reduced cost, you bring reduced quality; when you bring reduced quality, you have problems.”

Michael Bailis, vice president and executive solar designer at Sunation Solar Systems in Southampton, also spoke to the town.

“The whole solarize program is focused on one side, to reduce the cost of solar. Isn’t that what competition is supposed to do?” he said.

“The solarize program eliminates that,” Mr. Bailis said, by giving preferential treatment to contractors who will bid low, no matter what the cost to quality. The governor’s program is an exercise in “how to do it cheaper, not how to do it better,” Mr. Bailis said.

In addition, there are other ways to bring down the cost of solar, such as revising regulations and financing, according to Mr. Bailis.

“Eliminate some of the mechanisms that are roadblocks that cost us money,” he said. “NYSERDA makes us jump through a million hoops, and those hoops cost money.”

Mr. Carlin confirmed that there is “some tension around the Cuomo proposal.” “But in the end, he’s trying to expand public access to solar energy,” he said of the governor. “The sustainability committee for the town supports it.”

A community must apply to the State Energy Research and Development Authority for support, then select which contractor to use—the community has the option of working with more than one. The South Fork has not yet decided with contractor to work with, but Alan Wechsler, communications specialist at the State Energy Research and Development Authority, explained that the campaigns are expected to look for “quality, experience, capacity and the ability to provide excellent customer service.”

NYSERDA contends that quality of product will not be affected, because of rigid standards the agency has in place—inspecting wiring, power production and hardware, for example. These standards would apply to any project approved through Community Solar NY.

“Since contractors don’t get paid until their projects are approved by us, they have a strong incentive to maintain those standards,” Mr. Wechsler wrote in an email.

Although optimistic about the industry, Mr. Bailis is doubtful the state-facilitated program will work, suggesting that it should be up to customers to choose who they want to work with. “The market will ultimately allow homeowners to choose the contractor who makes the best case for their product,” Mr. Bailis said. “That’s what the market is all about: choice and competition.”

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