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New York Program Looks To Make Solar More Affordable

Craig Ruttle
Marco DelTreste, left, and Arsenio Patricio, of Mercury Solar Systems, install panels on the roof of a home in N.Y.

While more and more Long Islanders are powering their homes with solar energy, it only makes up a small slice of the energy pie in Nassau and Suffolk Counties. A state program administered by towns wants to change that by cutting the price of solar panels to homeowners who use approved vendors.

On a cool fall afternoon, Tom Casser is having solar panels installed on his house. The Manorville resident is looking to have the sun heat his home just in time for winter.

“It’s something that I’ve always kind of been thinking about in the back of my mind because you see them going up on houses all around you,” Casser says.

His panels aren’t the only ones in the neighborhood. It’s dotted with black tiles collecting the sun’s energy.

“It made a lot of sense and I decided to get a couple of quotes.”

Long Island is New York’s largest solar market according to Governor Cuomo. Over the past five years, residential installations grew 10 times over, from just under 3,500 in 2011 to more than 35,000 in 2016.

Michael Bailis, co-founder of Ronkonkoma-based SUNation Solar Systems, a local panel installer, says money is the reason why some Long Islanders have adopted the sun as their source of energy.  

“The idea is to play less. It doesn’t have to be a lot less. Just something that is less to start and know over time that that less becomes greater as the cost of energy continues to go up and yours doesn’t,” Bailis says.

That’s true for Casser. He opted to finance his panels, and his loan payments now are roughly the same as his old utility bill. But in 15 years, when the loan is paid off, his energy bill will hardly cost anything.

“Can you imagine if someone came in and said, ‘Hey I’ll renovate your kitchen, and it won’t cost you anything. In fact, 15 years from now you’ll actually be making money on your new kitchen? There are really not many opportunities around like that.”

Bailis and SUNation participate in Solarize Your Community programs, in which towns, like Brookhaven or North Hempstead, partner with the state to provide incentives for residents to go solar.

The Solarize programs help towns clear the fog and confusion for residents around the 200 plus solar companies on Long Island by vetting them.

What companies lose by giving discounts to consumers, they make up in volume because they are recommended by the towns.

If residents choose a participating installer, they are eligible for discounted rates on panels.

These potential savings are what’s driving people to get quotes for their homes.

Michael Trietsch has had his house evaluated a few times. Ever since panels became popular three years ago, he says he has been thinking about installing them on his Albertson home.

“Part of the need to save money to afford to live here in Nassau County is a bit difficult. You have to try and combine any ways you can to save money. So solar looked like a good thing to do,” Trietsch says.

Money wasn’t always the reason people installed solar panels. Bailis says it used to be about going green, but now it’s about saving it.

“Today, I would say 80 percent of the people that go solar are looking for a financial benefit. The attribute of going green is part of the decision, but at the end of the day they have to have an energy savings or dollar savings or financial benefit or they’re probably not going to do it,” Bailis says.

Long Island’s 35,000 installations are impressive, but solar power still has a long way to go. It only represents three percent of energy produced on the Island, according to 2015 data from the New York Independent System Operator, which monitors the reliability of the state’s power grid. The other 97 percent of Long Island’s energy comes from a mix of oil and gas.

Compared to 2015, Bailis says installations in 2016 have stagnated partially because saving money on energy isn’t as urgent as it once was.

“If the cost of electricity was going up three, four, five percent a year because the cost of energy was going up, that would be a built in urgency. We haven’t had any increases in energy in the past probably 18 months.”

But Bailis is optimistic. He hopes Long Islanders will see the light and take the step towards installing and harvesting the sun’s power.