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Installations up, but solar can't deliver a renewable future alone

Late last year, the Cuomo administration laid out its agenda to address New York’s future energy requirements. All this week, reporters from the Innovation Trail are putting different parts of that complex energy puzzle under the microscope. In mid-2012, the NY-Sun initiative was launched to make solar power in the state more affordable. Innovation Trail reporter Ashley Hassett takes stock of the scheme and looks at what still needs to be done make solar technology truly competitive.

Adam Rizzo and his crew installed a set of solar panels on the roof of Forestview church located near Buffalo. Rizzo says it took his company, Solar Liberty about three days to finish the job. It takes the consumer, however a bit longer than that to come out ahead of their initial investment in solar.

“We like to talk about it in terms of payback instead of upfront cost, because each homeowner is a little bit different. Right now we’re seeing four to five year paybacks for solar systems and once that payback is met then you have free electricity for the remainder of the system, which can be 35 plus years,” said Rizzo.

The long relatively low maintenance life cycle for solar technology is one of its biggest selling points. Upstate New York’s known for its occasional gloomy day though, so systems still need backup, either from battery storage or the grid.

Adam’s brother, Nathan Rizzo adds there’s a good reason your solar panels go offline during blackouts, one of the most commonly heard putdowns of the technology.

“If the power fails the solar system turns off so it’s not sending power back on to the grid if there is ever linesman working on it,” said Rizzo.

Is solar technology really good for the environment?

The solar uptake in New York has doubled photovoltaic or PV installations since 2011, but the technology still has its critics. On the negative side of the ledger: the carbon emissions solar technology generates in the manufacturing and transport stage. Nathan Rizzo arges that footprint quickly dissipates, especially compared to fossil fuels.

“Transporting it to the job site, manufacturing it, all of those CO2 emissions that are being created throughout that manufacturing process, it only takes two years to pay it back and then it truly is a clean technology that is not harmful to the environment” said Rizzo.

How are we improving solar technology?

A year ago the University at Buffalo flicked the switch on their $7 million solar strand on campus. The strand powers roughly 600 student apartments on UB’s north campus.

Chief sustainability officer Ryan McPhearson says students are currently working with Professor Vladimir Mitin to actually make those solar panels more efficient.

“So as you can imagine the ones on the space station are incredibly efficient, but have a very, very high cost and the ones that might operate a little plant on the dashboard of a car are very cheap and inefficient,” said McPhearson.

In order to bolster progress in the solar sector, the Cuomo administration wants to continue the level of funding that its major solar initiative, NY-Sunreceives for another decade. The plan is expected to attract more private sector investment for solar. 

NYSERDA President and CEO Frank Murray said a key factor in making solar more investor-friendly is improving the capacity for energy storage.

“Smart grids will minimize the effects of future natural disasters on consumers by helping to enable individual premises and microgrids ineffective of islanding themselves to provide power to pockets of consumers when central power plants or portions of transmission and distribution centers are inoperable," said Murray.   

Why does solar technology need subsidies?

New York’s solar industry currently receives a range of subsidies through the states Power Authority, NYSERDA, and the federal government. Richard Caperton is Managing Director for the Energy Center for American Progress. He says solar energy still needs those incentives to level the playing field against heavily subsidized fossil fuels.

“Since 1918 the oil and gas industries have gotten almost half a trillion dollars in subsidies from the federal government, so the federal government has always provided some level of incentive for energy technologies and solar energy is no different,” said Caperton.

What does the future for solar technology look like?

Caperton says solar power’s increasing affordability is driving growth in solar-related manufacturing, installation and operations jobs across the country.

TheNational Energy Renewable Lab recently put out a report that outlines a game plan to help get the United States to 80% renewable electricity by 2050, but Caperton says it’s going to take more than just solar.

“You don’t do that with just wind, or just solar, or just hydropower, you need all of them. Different parts of the country are going to use more or less of different technologies, but the country as a whole needs all of those technologies to provide our power,” said Caperton.