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Jul 11, 2017 11:56 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Towns, Advocates Hope To Help In The Shift To Energy Efficiency

Employees of SuNation Solar Systems installing solar panels on a house in Southampton.
Jul 11, 2017 1:26 PM

It was fitting that as energy experts from across the state gathered in Wainscott just before the start of the July 4 holiday weekend to discuss Long Island’s energy future, lights flickered off in Montauk as the first brief brownouts of the summer hit energy-hungry areas.

This is the first summer of anticipated electrical supply deficits on the South Fork, even as giant projects like a 90-megawatt offshore wind farm are planned to bring large doses of renewable-source power to the region in the coming years—but not soon enough.

Renewable energy and energy efficiency advocates who gathered at the second South Fork 100-Percent Renewable Energy Forum said that the first and highest hurdles to keeping the region in the black, when it comes to energy use, will be public awareness about energy efficiency and the cost of renewable power sources for homes.

While LIPA projects an energy deficit of more than 150 megawatts by 2030, local officials and energy advocates during the forum lamented the difficulty in awakening people to the impacts on their take-home pay of a lackadaisical approach to energy efficiency and opportunities for savings.

Simply getting in front of those with busy lives and getting them to lend an ear for a moment can be the hardest step, they said. Another can just be getting out of the way whenever possible—by making regulatory oversight more friendly to efficiency efforts.

“You have to get to people, go to where they are and, if you get their ear, which may only be for a matter of seconds, you have to have a convincing case for why it’s fiscally responsible and makes good sense,” said Jeremy Samuelson, the former director of the Concerned Citizens of Montauk, who served on one of the discussion panels at the June 28 forum. “You have to make the financial argument in clear terms and demonstrate that taking certain steps is a financial win, for them and their family.”

For several years, energy efficiency groups and local government have been pressing homeowners to seek out free home energy audits, the quickest and easiest way to identify waste in a house and detail fixes, costs and how quickly savings would be realized. The audits detail the savings on everything from changing light bulbs—the average home has about 80, and one traditional bulb replaced with an LED equivalent can cut wattage use from 100 to 10—to replacing windows or upgrading heating and cooling systems. They then break down exactly what the up-front cost would be and how quickly day-to-day savings would offset it.

East Hampton Town, which has set lofty goals for energy efficiency and renewable sourcing, has a public appeal effort under way, using mailings, radio ads and social media to promote the audits. Still, some 60 attendees of the recent forum—people who are interested in and aware of energy issues enough to attend a daylong forum on the issue—signed up to schedule audits of their homes for the first time.

“People are on board with this stuff—it’s just a matter of getting them to act,” East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said. “Things like replacing a swimming pool pump are no-brainers in terms of almost immediate savings: The payback is two or three years at most. A variable speed pump is $600 to $700, and LIPA will rebate $250 to $300 of that right away, and the pool company will do the paperwork for you, and you will see the savings immediately.”

Energy efficiency efforts and the spread of private renewable energy sources, like rooftop solar panels and geothermal heating and cooling systems, have made broad public strides in recent decades but still are employed by only small fractions of those who could benefit from them.

Gordian Raacke, director of Renewable Energy Long Island, an advocacy group and one of the organizers of the energy forum, said that part of the issue with trying to “sell” people on efficiency is that they can’t see it.

“The problem with energy efficiency is, it’s not visible,” Mr. Raacke said. “You can’t see insulation in your neighbor’s wall cavities. That’s why the audits are so important. It is a report, in your hand, that shows you how much money you are wasting.”

The power of visible, tangible efficiency has helped spread the popularity of rooftop solar. In 2001, LIPA began offering a rebate that paid for more than half of the installation of solar on a house. In the first year, two systems were installed—it took until 2015 for the rebate program’s goal of 10,000 systems to be installed.

In the following year, despite the rebate having ended, 10,000 more systems were installed, and there are now nearly 40,000 in place on Long Island homes.

Part of the barrier is, still, cost. Even though the price of a solar panel system has dropped precipitously with technology, competition and expertise by installers, the up-front outlay to install the systems remains a high bar for many homeowners. A typical 7-kw solar array for a single-family home now averages about $21,000, though that is down from more than $35,000 a decade ago. State and federal tax credits return 55 percent of the cost to the homeowner in the next tax return.

Still, advocates say local and regional government need to come up with more ways to make the costs accessible. Low-interest, government-backed financing for the installation costs is one approach that has been discussed.

Lawmakers at the forum said that their various agencies are looking at ways to smooth the path, both legislative and regulatory, to efficiency. Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman noted that the town recently adopted a law that would allow owners of large estates with giant electrical demands, but also aesthetic concerns that make rooftop solar unappealing, to be freed from clearing restrictions for the installation of ground-level solar arrays in far corners of the property.

He also said that towns should be looking at ways to apply tax incentives—like setting phased-in assessment increases for capital improvements—to commercial properties to encourage business owners to incorporate energy efficiencies in their improvements.

“We can help just by not getting in the way,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “The market has changed, fundamentally—wind energy is competitive in cost, solar is affordable now. There are ways that government can incentivize all of that. We’re seeing it with commercial properties already. Translating it to residential will be the next level.”

What all of the officials and experts agreed on is that renewable electricity is the path that New York, and eventually the whole country, is headed down. The shift is in its fledgling stages but already growing at a steady pace, despite fierce resistance in other corners of the country, simply because economies of scale are starting to put renewable energy generation on par, cost-wise, with traditional fossil fuels.

“What we are talking about right now is, fundamentally, how we develop and transmit and use electricity, and if you look at the parallels historically, every 100 years or so, we have to completely rework, top to bottom, how we do things,” Mr. Samuelson said. “It is never easy and it is never cheap.”

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