August 20, 2007

Looking To Brighten Solar Energy's Future

By: by Brian Nearing, Staff Writer, Times Union


ALBANY -- Influential players in the University at Albany's nanotech research and development center are pushing for major changes in solar power rules that would allow businesses to sell power companies excess power from large rooftop systems.

But the change, supported in a May report issued by the UAlbany College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering and backed by Tokyo Electron, IBM and a major Wall Street financier, runs headlong into opposition from the state's major energy producers.

It sets the stage for a tug of war between scientific and business leaders who have forged a $3.5 billion research and development center to change the face of the Capital Region, and a coalition of power plants that rely on oil, coal and natural gas to make electricity.

At the heart of the issue is a concept called net metering, in which owners of solar power systems sell excess power to utilities for a credit against bills. Currently, net metering is limited under a 1997 law to homeowners.

Its impact so far has been minuscule. For example, National Grid, which supplies power to 1.6 million customers in the state, issues credits to 175 customers, with an average annual credit of just $60.

But the May report from Albany Nanotech urges throwing open the doors for net metering. Researchers there want to unleash solar power by exploiting the state's vast acres of sunbaked open rooftops on shopping malls, town halls, schools, churches and offices as destinations for solar cells.

Believing that thin-film nanotechnology will create smaller, less-expensive and more-efficient cells, they want net metering expanded up to existing two-megawatt systems that are 200 times more powerful than the current limit. That is enough power for 2,000 homes.

"Tokyo (Electron) sees the photovoltaic equipment business as a promising market from which our know-how may potentially be utilized," said Masayuki Tomoyasu, vice president of the company's Technology Center America at the Albany campus off Fuller Road.

While Tomoyasu said the company doesn't have any specific opinions on the current net metering policy, the firm signed the report, which claimed more net metering could spur hundreds of new solar systems generating about 2,000 megawatts of new power by 2017.

That's the equivalent of a modern nuclear power plant, or as many as four coal-fired plants. The state currently has about 12 megawatts of installed solar power.

A coalition of utilities and power plants claims that if forced to buy more solar power through net metering, the state's electric rates, already the second-highest in the nation, could climb even higher.

The Energy Association of New York State sees pitfalls, financial and otherwise, said Executive Director Patrick Currane.

Currane said sending larger credits to more customers could mean rate increases for others.

"There is only one reason to get into the business of generating power beyond what it would take to run your home or business, and that is because someone is going to sell it back," he said. "Are we going to allow them to get a rate-payer-funded subsidy?"

Pradeep Haldar, the executive director of the College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering, said, "In New York, the solar industry is still in its infancy. It is growing at a healthy clip elsewhere."

Germany already has 300 times the installed solar capacity of New York due to government subsidies that guarantee all owners of solar power a set price for electricity.

Haldar called New York's net metering limits "a key barrier, particularly the commercial ban. There is no technical reason for it."

But Currane said credits, which are set at the retail rate for electricity, are too generous for expanded net metering. Credits should be reduced to reflect existing costs of meeting regulations, including taxes and government fees, as well as other long-term delivery costs for existing utilities.

Energy Association of New York State members include National Grid, as well Entergy Nuclear, owner of the two Indian Point plants in Buchanan, 35 miles north of midtown Manhattan, and Mirant New York, which owns a natural gas and oil power plant.

A spokeswoman for solar and wind power companies said the utility and power plant industry is trying to protect itself, rather than consumers.

"If consumers who invest their own dollars in renewable energy systems produce more electricity than they need, they should be able to sell it to the grid for others to use. It's common sense," said Carol Murphy, executive director of the Alliance for Clean Energy.

According to the nanotechnology report, if net metering is expanded and the state commits to 10 more years of solar installation subsidies, it could create 3,300 jobs by 2012 and 13,100 jobs by 2017.