By Mark Harrington

Fifty low-income families across Long Island will soon have access to discounted power from a solar array recently installed atop the Hauppauge headquarters of Long Island Cares food bank.

The project was one of the first to be installed under a LIPA program called “community solar,” which allows energy developers to sell power from their arrays to subscribers across the Island who can’t afford or whose homes can’t accommodate solar panels.

Long Island Cares, the food bank started by the late musician Harry Chapin, paid about $416,000 for the system, which consists of 852 solar panels on its warehouse roof. It will sell the energy to 50 low-income families screened by the agency at a discounted rate of about 16 cents a kilowatt-hour, said Scott Maskin, chief executive at SUNation Solar Systems, which installed the system. That’s around 25 percent less than a typical Long Island Power Authority rate. Most LIPA ratepayers pay  about 21 cents a kilowatt-hour.

Long Island Cares’ system is expected to pay for itself in around seven years, after which the food bank can use revenue generated from the system to fund other programs, Maskin said Friday at an event celebrating the system’s completion. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority provided a rebate of $37,674 for the system, he said.

Already, the agency has qualified 14 subscribers for the cheaper energy, with the processing work for the rest expected soon, said Paule Pachter, chief executive of Long Island Cares.

“If the roof at [Long Island Cares] can help people to become more self-sufficient, then we have done our job well,” said Pachter.

Four other community solar projects are under construction throughout the Long Island Innovation Park at Hauppauge, Maskin said, but the potential exists for a much larger buildout of solar in the area. There are 1,300 companies and a potential 20 million square feet of flat rooftop space available for solar.

LIPA’s community solar program in recent months has come under fire from solar installers such as Maskin because LIPA on Jan. 1 converted to a new state-subscribed scheme for compensating solar developers for their power in a way that sharply discounts the previous standard. State Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) has set a public hearing for Feb. 18 at Suffolk County’s William H. Rogers building in Smithtown at 11 a.m. to examine whether current community solar compensation schemes are adequate. 

But Tom Falcone, chief executive of LIPA, who attended the Long Island Cares event, indicated that the authority may be moving to make community solar somewhat more generous than it now is under the complex, state-mandated pricing scheme called Value of Distributed Energy Resources. He promised an announcement in about a week, including further news about a separate program of LIPA’s called Solar Communities.

“I really do think this is a landmark project,” Falcone said of the Long Island Cares installation, which will provide discounts of up to 25 percent for the energy. “It’s a good model, and we will further expand these programs,” enough to provide discounted solar power for 3,000 low-income homes over the next two years, he said.

Long Island now has around 50,000 homes and business with solar panels, but Falcone noted many cannot afford the average $30,000 price tag of systems. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-Northport) said, “To be able to say the public-private sector can help families struggling” to pay their electric bill? “That’s awesome.”

Originally published by Newsday.