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Gov. Andrew Cuomo has set out an ambitious agenda for energy in New York state and he needs to.Extreme weather events such as Superstorm Sandy have exposed the fragility of the state’s aging energy grid, new EPA regulations on greenhouse gases are driving fast-track conversions of former coal-fired plants, over 40 percent of New York’s power stations are more than four decades old and the Governor is caught in a major political vice over fracking.Cuomo’s 2013-14 budget proposal also outlines some major investments in the renewable energy sector.The Innovation Trail has focused its reporting on the state's energy planning and investment.

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

Updated 4:50p.m. with Governor Andrew Cuomo's announcement for $46 million award through NY-SUN for large solar power installations.

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. 

GOVERNOR CUOMO ANNOUNCES $46 MILLION AWARDED THROUGH NY-SUN FOR LARGE SOLAR POWER INSTALLATIONS TO ADD 52 MW OF SOLAR CAPACITY New Projects Will Significantly Increase New York State’s Leadership in Renewable Energy Production Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced that $46 million has been awarded under his NY-Sun initiative for large-scale solar energy projects that will add 52 megawatts to the state’s solar capacity. Today’s announcement follows a year of unprecedented growth for solar installations in the state as a result of the NY-Sun initiative. Awards have been made to 28 recipients to finance 76 large-scale solar energy projects in 33 counties across the state. Installations will be located at businesses, factories, municipal buildings and other larger commercial and industrial companies, and are expected to be on line by the end of this year. As a result of NY-Sun, more photovoltaic (PV) systems are now being deployed in the state than in the entire prior decade. The $46 million from New York State, awarded through a competitive program, leverages $100 million in private investment, resulting in $146 million in infrastructure projects. “The NY-Sun initiative is driving the growth of solar energy systems that will help businesses and municipalities benefit from cost-effective, on-site electricity generation,” said Governor Cuomo. “At the same time, it is building the State’s clean-energy economy and growing jobs, showcasing once again that New York is a leader in renewable energy and environmental stewardship.” The NY-Sun Competitive PV Program, which provides incentives for PV systems larger than 50 kilowatts, is administered by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). Funding per project is capped at $3 million, and all projects require co-funding to best leverage state resources. “Governor Cuomo’s NY-Sun initiative has been the catalyst for the unprecedented growth of solar power in the state,” said Francis J. Murray Jr., President and CEO, NYSERDA. “Large projects such as the ones announced today highlight the fact that public-private partnerships are having a significant positive impact on the state’s ability to diversify its renewable energy portfolio, reduce demand on the electric grid and stimulate economic activity.”

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.