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5,000 Megawatts of Solar Power


Two things happened in 2007 that seemed unconnected at the time, but turned out to be closely linked.

1. The New York Independent Systems Operator (NYISO), the organization that safeguards the electricity grid and makes sure there's always enough electricity, predicted in 2007 that in ten years New York State would need 35,000 megawatts of electricity at peak times. Peak times are when the most electricity is used, during heat waves when air conditioning use is highest.
2. JK Canepa, with myself and others, started the New York Climate Action Group (NYCAG). It filled the void left by the inactivity of one of the best NYC environmental groups of the early 21st century, the Neighborhood Energy Network (NEN), an organization oriented towards local solutions to global climate change, educating and advocating for solar energy and cutting energy waste through energy efficiency in our buildings.

The first major action was a way of continuing the work of NEN: putting together a solar panel of experts (ahem) to identify policy impediments to growing the solar industry in New York. We had four installers, one from Brooklyn, one from Queens and two from Manhattan and #1 for all four of them was commercial net metering. Net metering is where if you have solar panels and they make more electricity than you use, the excess is put into the grid and your meter runs backwards. It lowers everyone's electric bill because expensive methane “peaking plants” don't need to come on line. Though New York was the second state in the union to have net metering, back in the '90s, it wasn't permitted for commercial buildings as a sort of compromise with utilities, who don't like competition from the sun.

For years a commercial net metering bill was proposed by the Sierra Club Atlantic chapter and the New York Solar Energy Industry Association (NYSEIA). It would pass in the Democratic Party-controlled NY State Assembly and die in the Republican State Senate. The split New York legislature didn't foster bipartisan agreements, but rather inactivity and dysfunction. For many people around the U.S. who analyze state governments, New York's legislature was a laughing stock of how NOT to govern a state. It also gave a disproportionate amount of power to the each governor. So, no commercial solar net metering.

Our event was in the Friends Meeting House in the Gramercy Park area of Manhattan in January, 2008. Due to scheduling, we only had four weeks to plan it. And we packed the Meeting House! Over 200 people attended our event and we urged people to contact their state senators and assembly members to get commercial net metering, mentioning the effect on the carbon footprint of New York state, but emphasizing the thousands of jobs that would be created to install those solar panels. We urged them to spread the word and they sure did! Videographer Pamela Timmins recorded what would be an historic event. Two weeks later I called NYSEIA and urged them to get their folks upstate to contact their state senators and assembly members again because we were pushing from NYC.

“I know!” he told me. “All they're talking about in Albany is solar. You really started something down there.”

In June, the bill was passed by both houses. In fact, the Republican State Senate supported it nearly unanimously, better than the State Assembly did. The bill was signed into law in August. While they were at it, the Senate also gave New York City a solar property tax abatement, which was mentioned at our solar forum, but we decided to emphasize the net metering.

So, in 2008, the year after the NYISO prediction, we got commercial net metering in New York. Many large installations were put up every year. Thousands of jobs. And with solar usually comes efficiency. The less electricity a person or company with solar panels uses or wastes, the more of their solar-generated electricity will go into the electricity grid and they get paid for that.

In 2017, New York only needed 30,000 megawatts of electricity at the peak. NYISO said the difference between their 35,000 MW prediction and actual use was due to solar energy and energy efficiency. 5,000 megawatts is a lot of efficiency and solar! The equivalent of five nuclear power plants. According to Green Building Advisor, 5,000 MW can power more than a million homes. Some of that 5,000 megawatts of electricity simply came from people getting more efficient lighting and more efficient appliances, but much of it came from commercial net metering. Less energy use means less burning of methane, which means cleaner air and water, which means healthier air and water, which means healthier people.

It's interesting that hardly anyone knows it happened, never mind that the members of NYCAG had anything to do with that. We didn't do it for credit, but it is nice to know that in that manner, we had a long-lasting effect. We have a legacy we can be proud of.

Ken Gale, NYC, 2018


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