The outlook is cloudy for many New Yorkers taking part in community solar programs who are looking to see regular discounts on their Con Ed electric bills while helping the environment.
Developers, industry representatives and even public housing officials told THE CITY they’ve heard from customers who haven’t gotten any credits, or others who have gotten multiple credits some months and none others.
The promise of saving money and the planet compelled East Village resident John Senter to sign up for community solar in the summer of 2020.
“Community solar is like buying local,” said Senter, 65, a retired stagehand who owns an apartment in a large multi-family building with his wife.
In the programs, electricity customers can subscribe to a solar project that’s usually somewhere other than where they live — since renters in the city have no say on whether to put panels on their buildings and owners may not have space suitable for arrays.
Community solar subscribers like Senter are supposed to earn credits on their monthly electric bills from the solar energy generated from the project, generally saving 5 to 10%. But for months, those credits haven’t been appearing on Con Ed customers’ bills in a consistent manner, several people told THE CITY.
Since the solar project Senter subscribed to in Brooklyn went live in the spring of 2021, he’s only received discounts on his electric bill twice.
Sun-power proponents on Thursday for the first time took public action to address the issue with a petition organized by the New York Solar Energy Industries Association.
When the petition gathers at least 25 signatories, it can be sent to the New York’s Public Service Commission as a formal complaint, asking for the state to investigate Con Ed and create rules and penalties to secure consistent crediting moving forward.
“To customers it can seem we’ve had empty promises in some cases because of Con Ed’s shortcomings right now,” said Marcel Rodgers, director of project development at Sunwealth, a clean-energy focused investment firm that finances and manages solar projects. “We sold them on the fact that they’re going to be saving money…but for some customers it hasn’t happened yet.”
He said the company has 15 projects that have been operating since last year to serve nearly 300 customers and none have received credits.
That can throw an immediate wrench into individual households’ budgets — many of which have been further stretched by recently surging electric bills this season.
Long term, solar industry leaders say complicated billing and inconsistent credits may sow seeds of skepticism in clean energy’s growth as critical to mitigating the climate crisis and meeting the state’s environmental goals.
Con Ed says it’s working to fix the problem.
In February, the utility emailed 10,000 community solar customers and chalked up missing credits to a “technical delay,” documents obtained by THE CITY indicate. In the email, Con Ed assured the customers, “we are working to correct this, and to issue bill credits to your account on a consistent basis.”
Con Ed spokesperson Allan Drury clarified that the technical delays will be addressed through automation and assigning staff to address any backlogs.
“All credits will be awarded and we are making changes to avoid delays going forward,” Drury wrote in an email. “We support renewables and, thus, want it to be as easy and convenient as possible for customers to participate.”
‘Working With the Utilities, Not Against Them’
Energy experts see community solar as opening a pathway for people to participate in the renewable energy transition.
Subscribing to a community solar project makes financial benefits of solar directly accessible to most New Yorker who either can’t install solar themselves or can’t afford the up-front costs of installation.
“Community solar is awesome and it’ll save you money to support a local project,” said Noah Ginsburg, a director at the environmental nonprofit Solar One, which helps facilitate solar developments in underserved communities and offers job training. “But the utilities are undermining that proposition by not issuing credits regularly.”
The New York City Housing Authority, which is working to install on its buildings enough community solar to power about 5,000 homes, has also been affected by the inconsistent crediting.
“We hope there is a quick and reliable resolution so we can ensure the success of our current and future community solar leases, and so [low and moderate income] solar subscribers are receiving the energy bill discounts they signed up for,” said Rochel Leah Goldblatt, a spokesperson for the housing authority.
Solar developers, who need the utility to approve interconnection applications for new solar projects, have been reluctant to call out Con Ed for the inconsistent crediting for fear of dissuading would-be customers to sign up for community solar.
But after working for months behind the scenes to resolve the crediting issue without much success, they’re taking a different tack.
“Customers aren’t getting their credits, the developers are left holding the bag in a lot of ways and the state is ultimately going to suffer in meeting its goals,” said Zack Dufresne, executive director of the New York Solar Energy Industries Association. “We want to be working with the utilities, not against them.”
Distrust and Delays
But some damage might already be done. Multiple solar developers told THE CITY that they’re hearing anti-solar sentiments because of Con Ed’s crediting delays, which may throw off other efforts to switch to technologies that support a cleaner economy.
“Any type of distrust creates barriers, creates delays and creates, I would say, hesitation to join in this renewable energy transition,” said Brock Gibian, director of development at Brooklyn-based Ecogy Energy.
Gibian fears a ripple effect, as customers skeptical of Con Ed might not trust the utility to, for example, install electric heat pumps if the rebate Con Ed offers and administers could be in jeopardy.
“The fact that someone is distrusting free money simply because of utility delays and errors is not a good sign for the future of tackling climate change,” he said.
After Senter recently caught a Con Ed commercial on TV touting the utility company’s green energy initiatives, he said he wants the company to “walk their talk.”
Senter is an avid composter, for example, and appreciates how over the past two decades, community enthusiasm has allowed that green-friendly activity to grow.
“It makes perfect sense to me that the same thing could happen with community solar if it’s done correctly,” he said. “The concept is terrific. In a perfect scenario, I would recommend it to my neighbors. [But] why would I tell them to do this, and then they have the experience that I’ve had? I couldn’t do that to somebody. If it were working smoothly, I would be a strong advocate.”