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N.Y. State initiative to let consumers share in renewable energy projects

State regulators Thursday approved a new program that they say will allow renters and low-income consumers to tap into the fast-growing market for renewable energy.

The state’s Shared Renewables program allows consumers to band together to form larger groups that can share in benefits of renewable energy projects, such as solar energy installations and wind farms, and also provide them with the customer base they need to use the electricity that they produce.

For instance, the initiative could allow a group of consumers to band together to create what is called a “community solar” project, where solar panels are erected, not on a homeowner’s roof, but on a shared site, such as a vacant lot, with the economic benefits of that project shared among its participants.

“People essentially buy shares in a solar field or a wind farm,” said Aaron Bartley, executive director of People United for Sustainable Housing – Buffalo.

The community solar initiative gives priority during its first year to projects in which at least 20 percent of the participants are low- to moderate-income consumers. That provision will help open the door to renewable energy to more low-income consumers, especially renters or people whose homes are not suitable for solar panels because they face the wrong direction or are shaded, Bartley said.

Low-income consumers also are often shut out of the rooftop solar market because their credit scores are too low.

“It will mean solar savings for families who otherwise struggle to pay their monthly utility bills,” Bartley said.

The program, approved Thursday by the state Public Service Commission, is part of the state’s efforts to encourage the development of renewable energy.

Installed solar energy generating capacity statewide quadrupled between 2011 and 2014.

During the first phase of the initiative, which will begin Oct. 19 and run through April 2016, the projects will be limited to those at sites that provide the greatest benefits to the state’s power grid, or have at least 20 percent participation by low- and moderate-income consumers.

A second phase of the initiative, which will take effect in May 2016, will make shared renewable projects available throughout a utility’s entire service territory.