Is Solar Energy Long Island’s Next Crop?

The largest solar farm east of the Mississippi consists of 164,312 individual panels lined side-by-side, row-by-row across 200 acres, creating sprawling seas of blue glass surrounded by lush greenery. Together, these panels generate 32 megawatts of energy or, in practical terms, enough clean, renewable energy to power approximately 4,500 homes each year. Unfortunately, the largest solar farm east of the Mississippi sits on a narrow sandbar covered with more than one million homes: Long Island.

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This farm, built around Brookhaven National Laboratory, is symbolic of the solar energy boom that has struck Long Island in recent years. Even the least observant have noticed the ubiquitous panels on the roofs of their neighbors’ homes, municipal buildings, even parking lot overhangs. And it’s no coincidence. Each of the past four years has set a new record for the number of systems installed here.

In fact, through 2014, approximately 41% of all solar systems in New York State—which ranks seventh in the country in installed solar capacity—are on Long Island. In April, The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority announced a 320% growth in LI residential solar installations since 2012.

Long Island has become a harvester of light and in doing so, has turned the sun’s rays into a cash crop creating jobs and businesses.

But why has it happened here?

The answer is multifaceted and lies within a perfect storm of state funds, tax credits, stifling electricity rates and simple math that has created a breeding ground for a solar revolution. But is this progressive step in the march towards environmental stability happening too fast? Where do we go when we run out of rooftops? Can going green, go bad?

Dan Sabia’s memory of Sept 11 differs from most. As a National Guardsman, Sabia was a first responder who stood on the rubble that draped the streets of lower Manhattan. The experience, and the inevitable war that would follow, drew him to the immediate conclusion that the U.S. needed to wean its dependency on foreign oil.

Always intrigued by solar energy, Sabia took a course on how to install the systems and, using his background in construction coupled with a degree in architecture, did his first installation on his own rooftop 15 years ago. “I put solar on my house and watched the meter go backwards. I thought, ‘Why isn’t this country on board with doing solar?’”

Propelled by this mindset, he founded Built Well Solar. In his first year of business, he was one of just two installers on Long Island and did only a handful of jobs. Now, neither is true. “When I started in 2001, I think there were maybe five installs a year. I believe in 2015, there were well over 8-9,000 just in that one year.” Actually, there were nearly 12,000 installs in just the first nine months of 2015. And Built Well is now joined by dozens of competitors scattered across the Island.

Not only is this advantageous for the environment, it’s a boon for the local economy. The industry has created thousands of jobs and solar users are saving thousands of dollars over the lifespan of their systems, no small feat in a region that suffers from oppressive rates. “There are solar energy programs in all the states but on Long Island, we have [some of] the highest electrical rates in the country,” Sabia said. “The higher the rate, the quicker the payback. That’s what drives it on Long Island.”

But first, solar needed to become affordable, a goal New York State made a reality for many. Through programs like Solar Pioneer and NY-Sun, the state has bankrolled projects with millions of dollars in rebates to kick-start the industry. “When LIPA first started the program in 2001, the rebate was close to $50,000 for a system that cost $80,000. Today, that same system costs between $30-35,000. In 15 years, the price of solar panel materials has gone down 60%. The rebates did what they were designed to do: make the industry self-sufficient,” Sabia said.

Because of skyrocketing sales, the state funds that were earmarked for rebates dried up this past April. However, homeowners can still receive both state and federal tax credits on their income tax returns equal to 30% of the cost of the system. Additionally, when a system generates more electricity than the home uses, it gets added to the electrical grid and credited to the homeowner’s bill. In a process called net-metering, the homeowner pays the net difference between the electricity that was used and the amount sent to the grid. “We have customers with young children and after 18 years, they have enough savings to send their kids to college. And it’s all paid for by the sun,” Sabia said, pointing out the savings can accumulate to drastic numbers. “When the sun shines on your roof, it’s free.”

The Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant was doomed from the start. Completed
in 1984 by the Long Island Lighting Company (now LIPA), the plant faced an onslaught of public opposition stemming from recent accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Local communities would not agree to LILCO’s evacuation plan in case of a disaster. Thus, despite costing Long Island residents $6 billion to cover the construction, in 1989 LILCO agreed to shutter the plant. It still stands there today, nestled into The Sound coast, a mammoth, concrete relic of lofty aspirations and imprudent planning. Just to the west is a 350-acre wooded parcel that, if up to some, will become another sprawling sea of blue glass even larger than those shimmering right next door in Brookhaven.

In response to a request for proposed solar energy sources by PSEG, which controls LI’s power supply, LI Solar Generation, a joint venture between NextEra Energy Resources and National Grid, issued a plan to turn the site into a 72-megawatt solar farm. The benefits of such a project would be impactful: provide power for more than 13,000 homes, reduce carbon emissions by an average of 65,000 tons annually (the equivalent of taking 12,000 cars off the road) and create 125-175 new construction jobs.

However, in order for the panels to go up, the trees must come down, a strategy many see as counterproductive. “The trees don’t have to provide greater uptake of carbon than the amount of carbon reduced by solar. It’s not either/or, it’s both,” said Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. “That one does more to curb greenhouse gases than the other doesn’t make one better or something that should substitute for the other. We need both.”

In order to have both, the needed open space must be found. But according to Amper, no research has been done to examine where, how big and how many such spaces exist. “The people who are strong supporters of solar admit that they can’t even tell you how many rooftops there are, how many parking lots there are. They’ve never looked. They just go down to town hall anytime somebody says they want to do solar, and they say, ‘solar is good, we favor this.’ They have to be smarter about this.”

The Brookhaven solar farm went to great lengths to protect the surrounding natural environment including wetlands, the Peconic River and yes, the trees. The farm was reconfigured into a patchwork of six separate arrays in order to mitigate the environmental impact. But it took years to develop and the reconfiguring cost millions of dollars, two critical resources that may cause current leaders to put the cart before the horse. “We have to start planning…but Long Island is really bad at planning. What Long Island is good at is processing development applications,” Amper claimed. “Nobody thinks this is a good idea, except those who haven’t thought it through.”

“I hated the idea of cutting down trees, but I knew I had to,” Gordian Raacke recalled. “I cut the trees myself. It was painful.” The trees are gone but in their place is an energy-efficient, solar-powered home, one that leaves a vastly smaller carbon footprint than a traditional house. This is where Raacke lives. And Raacke is not apathetic toward the environment. As the executive director of the non-profit Renewable Energy Long Island (RELI), his career revolves around it. But his house-building experience might help explain his pragmatic approach on the issue.

Raacke noted that in some cases, the deforestation of land is a necessary evil, one that pales in comparison to the carnage our other energy sources demand. “Most people never have any idea what kind of a destruction to the environment is caused in the procurement of fossil fuels. We wipe out entire ecosystems, but we never see that. We plug something into a white outlet and it looks so clean and we don’t think about what kind of destruction that technology caused.”

Solar farms, contrarily, stick out like a sore thumb, creating a constant reminder of what once was. “People say, ‘Let’s just put them on rooftops,’ which of course we’ve got to do, but that’s not to say we won’t ever need any large- scale installations…I wouldn’t say that we could never cut down a tree for solar because we cut down trees for other stuff all the time.”

Private developers will note that many proposed sites for solar farms on Long Island are zoned for industrial use; meaning landowners can build anything on the grounds. A solar farm would be vastly more beneficial than say, a storage facility, a point emphasized by RELI in its support of the proposed 100-acre Middle Island Solar Farm, which would be built on a wooded lot in Mastic. “The owner has the right to develop that property and we felt that developing it with solar panels would be more benign than many other potential uses,” Raacke stated.

This is precisely the sentiment echoed by Gerald Rosengarten, the project’s developer. “I have owned the 100-acre plot of land for more than 25 years and have been committed to a green project on this property…The solar farm will take the equivalent of 7,000 cars off the road annually compared to an industrial use.”

Despite their legal rights, most developers are still conscious of public concerns and seem willing to cooperate. LI Solar Generation CEO Ross Groffman said the company will “work to come up with the best solution and preserve as much of the property as possible.” As part of its proposal, the company will fund a tree restoration program.

Middle Island meanwhile, will “mitigate environmental impacts by planting vegetation under the solar panels and using vegetation buffers to completely shield the solar farm from view,” Rosengarten said.

Raacke is on board with expanding the sources, but he is no advocate for cutting down trees at any cost and instead paralleled Amper’s sentiments about tempered planning. “Nobody wants to cut down trees. What we need to figure out—and we need this data quickly—is whether we would have enough areas on Long Island to generate our electricity with solar panels without cutting down any trees.”

To do this, RELI is working with partners, including Suffolk County and the Department of Energy, to create a solar map. “We’re using more sophisticated data gathering technologies like LIDAR, which not only takes pictures but measures the angles and shading from a plane. When that’s completed, we’ll be able to estimate the total solar rooftop technical potential on Long Island and how much electricity that could produce. Once we have that, we need to do a similar estimate for parking lot covers and landfills and other things like that.”

This however, could take years, and patience does not go very far around these parts.

Solar energy is needed, but so are proper planning, a great deal of coordination and the singular goal to do what is best—not on an individualistic level but a communal one. Indeed, this is what it took to build the biggest solar farm east of the Mississippi.

A report on the Brookhaven farm by Robert S. Anders of the U.S. Department of Energy called it an “unlikely project,” citing the cooperation required from numerous organizations, including a federal agency, a research institution, an electric utility, a private business and the general public. But it worked. “Each of these groups could have easily denied the project or refused to participate on the grounds that such a project…would ‘set a wrong precedent,’” Sanders wrote. “Had any single group decided not to participate, or wholly object to it…this project would have never taken place. Instead, and despite the odds, each of these very different interest groups found a way to make the project succeed.”

“We need to use the right mix of technologies and large-scale solar is just one component, but it is a big component to moving to a clean energy paradigm,” Raacke stated.

Any large-scale project, but especially a solar farm, will require an equally large amount of cooperation and careful planning. Perhaps an unprecedented amount of both—even for a region that claims many firsts in environmental protection. It might just be that the way toward our next big crop is through the lessons of our past.