A Partly Cloudy Day for Solar Energy: The City Council Hears Testimony on the New York Solar Jobs Act of 2011

November 15, 2011

Cooper Union Stock Photo

Patrick Robbins

The atmosphere at the City Council’s 250 Broadway conference room was crowded, but jovial—Councilmember James Gennaro was welcoming his old friend and former teacher Steve Englebright for the day’s hearing. Englebright, in his capacity as State Assemblyman for District 4, has introduced a bill to create solar energy jobs in New York State (New York Solar Jobs Act, A5713-2011), and was being asked to speak on its behalf for the City Council.

Councilmembers Elizabeth Crowley, Steven Levin and Brad Lander were all in attendance, as well as a mix of activists, professionals and concerned citizens.

Assemblyman Englebright was the first to speak, and he extolled many of the bill’s expected benefits, such as the stability it would provide investors by creating 15 year fixed contracts for purchasers, and the anticipated 22,000 new jobs that the bill would create. The bill would encourage the development of New York’s (and specifically New York City’s) solar industry by requiring utilities to boost their purchases from domestic solar providers. It would also provide for a noncompliance fee in case utilities do not expand their solar portfolio, the proceeds of which would go right back into solar investment. Much of the debate around the bill focused on the economic benefits of an expanded solar portfolio, which unfortunately will not be fully known until the New Year, when the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) is expected to release a report containing economic projections for different solar scenarios. The Assemblyman reminded the Council that New York City is in perpetual violation of the Clean Air Act for its reliance on dirty energy sources. This bill would be a definite step toward bringing us back into compliance.

As expected, the representative from Con Ed (Vice President John Mucci) disputed the benefits of the bill. Mucci stressed the “green” initiatives that Con Ed has put into practice over the last few years, and stated that Con Ed embraces the protection of the environment. This particular bill, however, Mucci denounced as burdening electricity consumers with unnecessary costs.

Councilmember Gennaro seemed amenable to Con Ed’s concerns. However, he also emphasized the importance of putting environmental legislation on the books in case the next Mayoral administration isn’t quite so green as Bloomberg. “We need to be thinking about legacy,” the councilmember said more than once. A representative from Bloomberg’s office declared that the Mayor has no official position on the bill at this time, although he is apparently keenly interested in making sure that noncompliance fees and rate payer money stays in the city.

An official request that Governor Cuomo pass this resolution was proposed, but then “laid over by committee,” which usually just means “ignored.” At the end of the day, we all learned a lot more about the bill and about the opinions of different stakeholders, but on paper we’re neither closer nor further from having a solar New York City.

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