Electric Sunshine-Solar Power in the Hudson Valley

Author: Shannon Gallagher
Posted: Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What do you do when the State Transportation Department demolishes your town hall as part of a road-widening project? Town leaders in Esopus decided to look on the sunny side, and now the municipality's seat of government has one of the most highly efficient buildings in the Hudson Valley. The recently completed solar portion of the building's green energy systems was awarded Best Ground Mount PV (photovoltaic) Project at the New York Solar Industries Association 6KC awards. 6KC stands for 6,000 degrees Celcius–a rough estimate of the temperature at the Sun’s surface.

Esopus’ state-of-the-art town hall incorporates a number of green building features, including extensive day lighting and a geothermal heating and cooling system. It was the geothermal that led them to solar, says Randolph Horner, the project’s solar energy developer. “By choosing [geothermal] they unshackled themselves from a future of fossil fuel consumption, but to run the system requires a considerable amount of energy,” explains Horner. “Their intention was to make the brand new building as green as possible, including long-term energy consumption.” Faced with the prospect of high energy bills to run the new geothermal, the town decided to use the land available at the new location for a solar ground system, a cost effective way to generate clean electricity on site.

Unless you’ve been in a cave (an energy-efficient but decorator-challenged dwelling design) you know that escalating energy costs and the rapidly declining health of our environment make clean and renewable energy agendas a global imperative. It’s been slow going, but interest in alternative energy is rising in many local and national governments. Public benefit corporations like the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) help by offering tax incentives and community outreach to facilitate the implementation of green technology in municipal buildings, businesses, and private homes.

Solar power holds possibly the greatest potential. Solar power can be passive, using building orientation and fenestration to heat and cool; thermal, which mostly involves heating water; concentrated, which uses reflective devices to convert water to steam to drive a turbine; and photovoltaics (PV), which converts the sun’s energy into electricity through photovoltaic cells. Compared to other energy sources such as coal, oil, or natural gas extraction, solar is low impact, and properly engineered systems can last up to 30 years. Production costs for panels are high, though, and the slow rate of efficiency rate improvements-the rate is currently at about 40%–has impeded wider growth. But programs such as NYSERDA’s Solar Electric Incentive Program will cover up to 50 percent of the installation costs. Other programs such as Property Assessment Clean Energy (PACE) offer further financial incentives which allow homeowners and business owners to install efficiency measures such as solar panels, and pay for them through an opt-in property tax payment mechanism, similar to those that fund street or sewer repairs.

PACE’s enabling legislation has been passed in a number of states, but Horner says it’s not enough.  “The law needs to be more robust and flexible in order for there to be a more widespread public finance option.” It is his hope that by summer’s end the financing’s enabling legislation will have been fine-tuned in Albany and municipalities such as Esopus will be able to offer residents adequate funding. When you look deeper and consider how much traditional fossil energy is subsidized, this funding begins to level the playing field.

Still, solar energy is already gaining a foothold in the Valley. When Jeff Irish, founder of Hudson Valley Clean Energy (2010 NYSEIS Net Zero Commercial Building winner), installed solar in his own home in 2002, it was only the tenth system between New York City and Albany. Since then, his company has done over 500 projects, including those for municipalities such as Rhinebeck, New Paltz, East Fishkill, Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, Red Hook, and for the Army at West Point. Having worked with NYSERDA for eight years, Irish believes the program has been well managed and stable. “It’s a complex business – it’s really amazing how much engineering work and documentation goes into these systems. Because they’re being funded by the state, they want to make sure high quality installs are being done and a good value is generated from the state’s assistance.”

This means that NYSERDA incentives are only available through eligible installers, who, in addition to ensuring the meticulous engineering and high-quality installs, file all the necessary paperwork, leaving the homeowner with little to no responsibility. “[NYSERDA] makes it really simple, really easy,” says Bob O’Keefe, owner of Hudson Valley Solar Hot Water. “They’re extremely user-friendly.” Solar hot water – a highly efficient and foolproof system whereby solar-heated water is pumped directly into your existing hot water system – can cover 70-75 percent of a family’s domestic hot water.

“As electric energy costs drive up hot water prices, the cost to heat water will be astronomical,” says O’Keefe. “The way I look at it, whether or not you buy a [solar hot water system] you’re going to pay for one for not taking advantage of the credits and cost for heating your own hot water. NYSERDA will pay about 55% of installed cost. The payback period is about 5 years, and you’re protected with a domestic hot water heater for the next 20 to 30 years.”

For more information on NYSERDA incentives visit nyserda.org. For help, visit the NYSERDA community liaison organization New York Energy Smart Community at getenergysmart.org.

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