Clifton Park, New York
Clifton Park, New York, is a town with a population of nearly 38,000, about twelve miles north of Albany. Its first community solar project, the Sugar Hill Solar Farm, opened in October.
It was not all that long ago that permitting and financial structures for community solar projects were not in place for the State of New York. That being the case, Clifton Park’s first project could not be said to have been slow in coming. Mark Richardson, the CEO of U.S. Light Energy, one of the developers, told us he had been hard at work to get the state to allow community development for years before it finally became possible. The problem is not just getting the state on board. Utilities, transmission companies, towns, and groups of people with common interests all have to be ready to do their part.
Clifton Park could not have gotten started much before it did on the community solar project, but now that project is complete. The Sugar Hill Solar Farm is a seven-megawatt system that covers about forty acres of land. Its 20,000 solar panels will produce enough electricity to power about 600 local homes, and the community solar structure makes the panels available to power the homes of residents and businesses.
Richardson said, “We are very proud of our project. It looks fantastic. Everybody did a great job. The place where it is sited is about as good as you could hope for. The land owner is ecstatic, because it gives him an income from what had been marginal land.” The land had not been used for an agricultural cash crop, and was only used for hay.
Community solar systems are very valuable for people who do not have their own place for solar panels. Participants work with Common Energy, the subscriber service company. Participants get credits on their energy bills for the electricity their part of the community system produces, and this reduces the cost of electricity for them.
In the case of the Clifton Park project, the early subscribers all had to be residents of the city, by agreement with the municipality. There was a window of thirty days during which only residents were allowed to sign up. Once that passed, signups could be taken from anyone in the state who got their power from National Grid, the utility providing power in the region where the array is located.
U.S. Light Energy did not develop the Clifton Park Community alone. It partners on projects of the type with another company, Standard Solar, which is based in Rockville, Maryland. Standard Solar owns the solar array. U.S. Light Energy is familiar with the geography and conditions in New York. It can scout the territory, talk to local people, and find the most likely sites for arrays. Standard Solar is a much larger company that can deal with issues of financing and ownership. As to getting the work done on the ground, Richardson said, “We collaboratively reviewed and chose the firms that do the construction.”
Richardson’s approach to solar power is not one of learning how to do the job and then sticking to what he knows. He is clearly looking out to make things better. One thing he is working on is pushing the state to incentivize solar projects differently. “We should not be rewarding megawatts,” he said. “What we should be rewarding is megawatt-hours.” In other words, a solar array should not be given an incentive based on the amount of power it can produce at noon on a sunny day in the late spring, but on the amount of energy it can deliver over the course of a year, in all seasons, in sunshine or under cloudy skies.
Another thing Richardson is considering is how solar power fits into the overall scheme of the environment. Not satisfied with reducing carbon emissions, he is considering the solar industry from a more holistic point of view. For example, while his company has not yet installed a solar system co-located with agriculture, he is looking at combining solar with sheep or bees. “The reality is that we must be good stewards of the land,” he said. “It is one of the things that gives America the advantage it has in the world. It must be cared for.”