Community Solar: The Key to Achieving Ambitious Renewable Energy Goals

As a New Yorker and an environmentalist, I am proud that we are leading the charge in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing renewable energy production. The Climate Leadership & Community Protection Act (CLCPA) sets ambitious goals that demand a multi-layered approach. Most New Yorkers will not recognize the CLCPA acronym. But they can understand the very clear goal of achieving 100% renewable electric energy by 2040.

Versatility of Application & Appeal
Community solar is the most versatile of any renewable energy program for our diverse county. The technology and the pathways for implementation enable solar farms in urban, suburban and rural settings. The financial incentives motivate both public and private landowners to welcome installations. The demand for more solar farms creates demand for more green jobs. It can provide revenue directly to municipal governments, and savings directly to local residents regardless of income level or the structure they live in.

Years of serving a socioeconomically diverse community makes me keenly aware of the value of renewable energy programs that are accessible regardless of discretionary income or homeownership. The key to success in achieving the ambitious goals of the CLCPA is wide-scale participation that transcends demographics and landscape. The renewable energy option of the Community Choice Aggregation program is a groundbreaking initiative that exemplifies this approach. Community solar elevates this achievement by capturing solar energy on rooftops, parking lots, and open fields right here in Westchester, and in doing so, creates financial savings opportunities that are accessible at all income levels. Sustainable Westchester’s robust mix of programs has the ability to move the needle toward 100% renewable electric energy by 2040.

Municipalities Charting New Territory
As with anything new, municipalities are exploring a variety of ways to implement and encourage community solar. My colleagues in the Town of Ossining created a floating zone to allow for solar farm review and approvals. They felt it was important to create this additional level of public consideration of applications since existing comprehensive planning does not provide direction or guidance for solar farms. They are poised to approve their first application for solar canopies in the Maryknoll campus parking area.

Breaking down the enormous challenge of climate change to a scale were individuals are empowered to make tangible improvements is critical to our success in achieving renewable energy goals. Mt. Kisco was home to the first community solar project on municipal land in Westchester and they led the way with offering credits to local residents, businesses, and not-for profits. The fact that they sold out locally before needing to consider opening access to the credits beyond their municipal boarders demonstrates the demand for community solar credits.

As construction in White Plains gets underway on the 6 megawatt community solar initiative that spans eight city- owned sites, broad reaching community benefits are illustrated on a grand scale. This project represents a shot in the arm for renewable energy production in our region, as well as generating $960,000 annual revenue to the city coffers, and an offer of energy credits directly and exclusively to White Plains residents.

Enlisting Municipal Buy-In
Local governments and school districts present a wealth of potential locations for community solar initiatives. Grabbing and holding the attention of municipal leaders is perhaps the greatest challenge toward garnering the participation of communities in any renewable energy program. While all of us recognize the need to take action to address climate change, a program needs to check a lot of boxes before it is deemed worthy of being added to the list of urgent priorities for our city, town, or village.

Community solar checks all of the three Ps: people, planet and profits. Individual households may be able afford to make choices that are driven primarily by their desire to help the planet. Municipal leaders must be able to justify the use of taxpayer resources, accomplish a relatively short return on investment, and communicate a simple message.

Our LED streetlight conversion has been the single most financially beneficial green initiative for the Village of Ossining. With $0 upfront cost, and a six-figure savings annually on our municipal electric bill, we reduced our carbon footprint and saved enough money to kick start what has become four straight years of a 0% increase on the village property tax rate. That’s a simple, tangible message that residents can understand and feel reassured that their local government is looking out for their checkbook and acting responsibly for the planet.

Magnifying the Impact
Energize, Solarize and now EnergySmart Homes are programs that check all three boxes as well. While these programs do not provide financial benefit to the municipal bottom line, and they are limited in who can take advantage of them, they deliver savings directly to residents. One of the greatest benefits of these initiatives is that participants become champions of the programs and are motivated to take further action toward reducing the carbon footprint of their household and their community.

Part of the brilliance of Sustainable Westchester is that it recognizes and facilitates the impact of layering initiatives throughout dozens of communities. HeatSmart for commercial properties and EnergySmart Homes for residential properties prioritize electric energy usage, magnifying the benefit of the increased renewable electric energy produced by community solar.

Leading the Way
As a strong supporter of the anti-fracking movement, I celebrated New York’s fracking ban in 2014. A year earlier as a newly elected official, I had my first face-to-face exchange with Governor Cuomo. I used my moment to plead for a fracking moratorium. As neighboring states and national leaders continue to buy into the fallacy that fracking provides a “necessary bridge fuel,” New York is leading the way with innovative legislation to bolster the tourism and agricultural industries, and now with ambitious CLCPA renewable energy goals and incentives. Sustainable Westchester is demonstrating that it is a renewable energy leader by facilitating the sale of energy credits through their online registration for both ConEd and NYSEG customers whether the installation is on the roof of a mini-storage facility or a municipal landfill. Sustainable Westchester’s latest incarnation of community solar in partnership with NYPA and Westchester County opens the door for many more local governments to get on-board. This represents tremendous potential for expanding the total megawatts of renewable energy that will be captured right here in Westchester.

The combination of the versatility of access, multifaceted financial benefits associated with community solar, and production of renewable energy locally, make Westchester County poised to be the renewable energy leader in New York State. We are in a moment of great opportunity.

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