At Barber Brothers Dairy Farm near Saratoga, NY, Kevin Bailey sees the potential for New York state’s emergent solar industry. Bailey is owner of High Peaks Solar, a Troy company that installs solar electric systems.
He’s found a niche selling large solar systems to farms.
Unlike many who fret that the U.S. solar industry is fighting a losing battle against the Chinese — who have become the largest producers of solar panels in the world — Bailey likes his prospects in the solar business. He is planning to double his workforce to 14 people in the coming months to keep up with his backlog of projects.
In many ways Bailey represents hope for the future of the state’s solar industry, which has gained momentum recently with the creation of a $400 million solar manufacturing consortium at the University at Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering.
General Electric Co., which is building a large solar panel manufacturing plant in Colorado, has promised 100 jobs associated with that effort here in the Capital Region, which is expected to vie for a second GE plant should the first one succeed.
Bailey says the mix of government-sponsored financial incentives, including a 30 percent federal tax credit, can reduce a project’s costs significantly.
In places like Schuylerville, where farmers desperately cling to the land, anything that makes them more self-reliant also increases their chances of survival. That became clear in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, which knocked out power and ruined crops. People were reminded of the vulnerability of the electrical system, which sparked a greater increase in solar.
Bailey also suggests that because of the volatility of the energy and financial markets, spending money on a solar system provides a greater and more predictable rate of return. Not only do the systems typically pay for themselves within a few years, any unused electricity can be sold back to the utility. And because of the open spaces they have, farms can maximize their electric generation by being able to mount their panels on poles to adjust to the sun’s position in the sky. At 25 kilowatts, the Barber Brothers solar energy system is the largest possible allowed under law to maximize sales back to National Grid.
“It’s one of the more attractive investments people can make these days,” Bailey said. “Farms are one of the most important sectors in the state in terms of putting solar in.”
Installers like Bailey who have the proper electrical and construction training have thrived under the solar incentives offered by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. NYSERDA currently pays $1.75 per watt for new systems. That rebate, combined with the federal tax credit, provides the built-in profit margins small businesses like his need to grow. The NYSERDA program, which expires in 2015, is designed to add 82 megawatts of solar generation in New York, which would more than double the amount of installed solar capacity in the state today.
The existing NYSERDA rebate structure has helped the local companies, according to Bailey.
Still, when it comes to solar power, New York has not even begun to tap into its potential, which experts say could rival that of Germany. That country is expected to install nearly six gigawatts of solar electric capacity this year, 100 times the existing solar electric installations in New York.
Jackson Morris, a senior policy adviser with the Albany office of the Pace Energy and Climate Center, says New York’s infant solar market may have been one of the factors that led GE to choose Colorado instead for a plant that will make “utility-scale” panels for large solar installations. “They have a robust solar market and New York does not,” Morris said.
Labor unions and environmental groups propose creating a new state incentive program that would require utilities to buy a certain percentage of their electric supply from solar generation. A system of solar credits, traded like bonds or stocks, would support the program.
Developers of large-scale solar “farms” would be attracted to the state, supporters say, knowing they would be nearly guaranteed a market. That could lead to a total of 5,000 megawatts of solar installations by 2025.
Such in-state demand would also attract manufacturing to the state.
The battle over solar manufacturing is also taking place at the NanoCollege in Albany, which has created the U.S. Photovoltaic Manufacturing Consortium with a $60 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and $300 million in backing from private businesses.
Pradeep Haldar, vice president for clean energy programs at the NanoCollege, says PVMC, as it is known, was designed in the model of Sematech, which was a creation of the federal government in the 1980s to try and wrest the computer chip industry back from Japan.
Similarly, PVMC seeks to lure the global solar manufacturing market away from China, which exported $1.4 billion in solar technology to the U.S. last year, according to a study done by GTM Research for the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Haldar says the U.S. will win the battle by producing a better solar cell that uses superior technology. The PVMC is focusing on thin-film solar cells that use less material but can be placed on flexible materials, making them better suited to integration into building materials. Haldar also believes these thin-film technologies can be more efficient and cheaper in the long run than panels produced in China. The Chinese are simply building commodity-based products, according to Haldar.
The PVMC’s goal is to bring together manufacturers and their equipment makers and to perfect the manufacturing process, while strengthening the whole supplier ecosystem so it can ramp up and meet the expected demand for the better solar panels.
By having that done here in Albany, it’s expected that a lot of that manufacturing will be established in New York, just as the NanoCollege’s computer chip research programs have attracted companies like GlobalFoundries, which is building a $4.6 billion chip fab in Saratoga County.
“What we’ve tried to do is bring all these people together as a group and establish this supply chain to get them more robust,” Haldar said.
Even though the U.S. buys Chinese solar products, the U.S. exports between $1.7 billion and $2 billion in solar goods annually to China, mostly in manufacturing equipment. That actually gives the U.S. a trade surplus with China in solar, and it’s that high-tech supply chain that will also support efforts at the NanoCollege.
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