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Community groups urge New York not to throw out shared solar with net metering

Community groups and solar advocates fear New York's nascent community solar market is in jeopardy if regulators lower net metering production credits.

The New York Energy Democracy Alliance led a Jan. 18 press call that urged the New York State Public Service Commission and Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration to reconsider draft plans to radically lower how much New Yorkers get paid for excess renewable generation unloaded onto the grid.

The concerned community groups oppose current provisions in the draft plan to devalue municipality-owned and community solar, which is the only way renters, low-income customers, businesses and others unable to install solar panels on their property can benefit from a single renewable generation source. The groups believe that the Department of Public Service staff proposal under consideration focuses too much on maximizing the value of renewable energy for utilities and capping impacts on utility revenues instead of promoting the development of renewable energy development for society's benefit.

"Community solar enables people to invest in shared solar arrays somewhere in the region and to receive net metering credits on their bill just as if that solar were on their own roofs," said Jessica Azulay, a program director with the Alliance for a Green Economy during the call. It is unfair that the commission is seeking to replace net metering with a new compensation scheme that favors utilities at the expense of solar development just as the first solar community projects comes online, she said.

In a July 2015 order, New York regulators OK'd allowing a single, locally generated renewable source to have multiple customers, who are individually credited for the energy production on their monthly utility bills. Solar advocates stress community solar also gives renewable energy access to customers living in multi-dwelling units and those with shaded roofs. However, progress in implementing community solar grinded to a halt in August 2016 when DPS staff suspended collaborative efforts to identify and overcome barriers for low-income customer participation in community distributed generation.

"Most homes and businesses in New York don't have a site suitable to solar," Azulay said. "Many don't even own their own property. This is an issue that disproportionately impacts low-income people and people of color because of discrimination in housing and lending, and are more likely to be renters and have less access to credit."

One business that has gained access to solar thanks to net metering is GreenStar National Cooperative Market in Ithaca, N.Y. The food co-op is a $23 million business employing 700 people at three stores and has 12,000 members. Unable to install solar on its warehouse, which doubles as a shared public space, the co-op turned to net metering to gain access to renewable energy and contracted with a solar farm built about 6 miles south of the town on land owned by a member of the co-op.

"We have a 140-kW system on that acre that is supplying about 50% of the use for our warehouse building," said co-op member 12th Moon, who serves on GreenStar's elected board of directors. "Without the incentives and the subsidies, we could not have done it and without the ability to have remote metering, we could not have done it."

12th Moon said the co-op is seeking to expand the solar farm another four or five acres if net metering continues. He said the co-op's members and local businesses would be devastated by the loss of net metering.

The New York Energy Democracy Alliance and 97 other organizations, businesses and elected officials jointly filed on Dec. 5, 2016, comments and recommendations that said proposed rule changes should take into the account improved energy affordability for low-income people, storm resiliency, and reduction in air and water pollution when determining the value of a shared renewable energy project.

The PSC could decide on net metering at their next scheduled meeting on Jan. 24. (PSC Case 15-E-0751)