Comments Regarding “Solar & Storage Providers COVID-19 Input Session”
The Coalition for Community Solar Access (“CCSA”), the New York Solar Energy Industries Association (“NYSEIA”) and the Solar Energy Industries Association (“SEIA”) thank the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (“NYSERDA”) and the New York State Department of Public Service (“DPS”) for the opportunity to submit comments on the immediate needs of the solar industry during the PAUSE period.
We appreciate the unprecedented and challenging position the state finds itself in, and greatly appreciate the transparency NYSERDA and DPS have provided into state decision-making and expectations. As your agencies have already recognized, the COVID-19 crisis has created a massive disruption for the distributed solar industry. We look forward to rehiring workers and resuming construction activity for all projects as soon possible.
Thank you for setting in place a process for firms to request an automatic six-month extension to the construction milestones for the NY Sun program. We look forward to a more formal announcement from NYSERDA in the coming days explaining the details.
These comments are organized into two sections: A) immediate steps NYSERDA and other state agencies can take during the PAUSE period to help the industry; and B) longer-term measures that will provide clarity once construction activity is able to resume.
A. Immediate steps during the PAUSE period to help the solar industry.
1) NYSERDA should reconsider its interpretation that single-person, on-site pre-construction work is prohibited at this time.
Certain activities such as wetlands delineations, site survey work, and geotechnical engineering work often involve one person at a remote, and often large, site. These activities present very little risk of spreading the virus to co-workers or to the general public. We ask that NYSERDA reconsider this interpretation. In the event that NYSERDA maintains the prohibition against single-person pre-construction and/or construction work, we ask that this low-risk work be allowed in the first phase of resuming construction activity across the state.
2) Where possible, electric utilities should endeavor to accomplish interconnection-related process steps remotely or via self-verification.
Many activities related to solar project development and installation, such as door-to-door sales and construction of all types, have been directed to be placed on hold during the PAUSE period. To minimize bottlenecks in the development/installation process and set up the industry for robust economic recovery once the PAUSE period is over, it is crucial that activities that can be conducted remotely be allowed to continue through the PAUSE period. Specifically, in keeping with the Public Service Commission’s (“PSC”) April 6 Order, electric utilities should endeavor to perform all steps of the interconnection process including meter inspections, verification and witness testing through virtual technology (photo evidence/video conference) or self-verification when doing so is possible.
3) As soon as possible, NYSERDA should host safety protocol webinars to educate firms and their employees about best practices on solar job sites, and define a construction phase-in strategy to enable New Yorkers to get back to safely completing low-risk work.
In preparation for resuming construction activities, NYSERDA should hold safety protocol webinars on best practices for on-the-job exterior or remote construction work. We recommend that firms self-certify that they attended these training sessions. The certification could then be used to authorize specific firms to resume work, once the first phase of construction work is allowed to continue. Furthermore, ESD and NYSERDA should consider a phase-in of solar project construction work based on an assessment of risk. For example, a small team of employees working in a remote area of a New York county with very few reported COVID-19 cases, or not close to a town center, poses a much lower threat than work conducted in New York City or Westchester County, which are noted “hot spots” for cases. In addition, a worker per acre threshold could also be used to determine an acceptable worker density. In other words, a small number of workers spread over a 20-acre site would also pose limited risks.
B. Longer-term measures that will help once the construction activity is allowed to resume.
Our organizations wish to highlight several additional longer-term priorities to help address challenges that have arisen due to COVID-19, or that we expect to be exacerbated by the crisis.
1) DPS and PSC should consider carefully the impact of any further modifications to the interconnection process with regard to potential bottlenecking of the interconnection queue.
The PSC’s April 6 Order temporarily suspending deadlines related to the payment of the final 75% of estimated interconnection costs to the utility by the applicant is appropriate and much-needed given the current halt on non-essential construction, local permitting delays, supply chain disruptions, and the constraints on the availability of capital caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. However, any further regulatory modifications to the interconnection process (e.g. placing a hold on the 25% payment deadline) should consider very carefully the impact on potential queue bottlenecking, and allow projects that can and wish to move forward to still do so.
2) NYSERDA and ESD should provide explicit guidance to towns advising them to process permit applications and hold public meetings related to solar project permitting remotely during the PAUSE.
As stated previously, many activities related to the solar development and installation process have ground to a halt during the PAUSE period. In order to drive a robust “return to work” and economic recovery for the industry, it is critical that any work related to the development/installation process that can continue through the PAUSE period be authorized to do so. Specifically, we urge NYSERDA and ESD to provide guidance and assistance to towns enabling the remote acceptance and processing of permit applications, whether by email or snail mail, and the holding of public meetings (hearings, planning board meetings) remotely (by teleconference or web-based videoconference) as authorized by EO 202.1.
3) NYSERDA should issue additional extensions as needed.
We are grateful for NYSERDA’s commitment to extending NY Sun construction timelines. Additional project delays may occur beyond the 6-month period as a result of 1) construction that was intended to be complete prior to the 2020-2021 winter season being pushed into spring-summer 2021 and 2) customer acquisition challenges for community solar projects related to the prohibition on in-person sales and general customer distraction and uncertainty as a result of the pandemic. NYSERDA should monitor industry needs and be prepared to issue further extensions as needed to provide confidence for developers and investors that projects will not be cancelled due to COVID-related impacts.
4) PSC should extend the Community Credit reallocation period and reconsider ending reallocation in a given utility territory after one month without cancellations.
We welcome the PSC’s March 19 Order approving the reallocation of unused MW capacity from Community Credit tranches until at least November 1, 2020. However, the PSC’s subsequent order temporarily suspending the 75% interconnection payment has led to the unintended likelihood that some unviable projects will remain in the queue beyond that date. Thus, we believe it is necessary and reasonable to extend the reallocation period beyond November 1, 2020, to account for this, thus ensuring the recycling of as much capacity as possible. We also urge the PSC to reconsider the provision to end reallocation in a utility territory when there are no project cancellations for a month. The one-month attrition provision does not track with the realities of project development, as there could be several months where no projects cancel, followed by a month where many do. The current provision will likely result in a premature end to capacity reallocation to the detriment of the state’s clean energy goals. We expect to be able to make realistic recommendations for appropriate extensions once there is more clarity around the length of the PAUSE and the state’s plan to safely phase in solar construction.
5) NYSERDA and PSC should increase the Community Adder to adequately support community solar.
Due to a prohibition on in-person sales and other restrictions during the PAUSE period, CDG firms are already facing significant difficulties in acquiring subscribers, effectively increasing customer acquisition costs. Further, VDER values are likely to decline due to the reduction in wholesale energy pricing (Location-Based Marginal Pricing). In prior comments to the PSC before the crisis, we stated that NYSERDA’s proposed $0.18/W Community Adder level is insufficient to allow for project financing in 2020 due in part to the agency’s modeling assumptions and in part because these projects will not be able to realize savings from consolidated billing until it is fully implemented and anticipated savings materialize. Given the additional virus-related challenges, we believe it is even more critical to establish a CA of at least $0.26/W. We recommend a Community Credit rate much closer to the Net Present Value of a 25-year $0.02/kWh incentive, the level approved in the PSC’s March 19 Order.
Please contact Erika Niedowski, Shyam Mehta and David Gahl with any questions about these comments.
Northeast Director, Coalition for Community Solar Access
Executive Director, New York Solar Energy Industries Association
Senior Director of State Affairs, Solar Energy Industries Association