Story By: Claude Solnik March 13, 2015
John and William Cavallo, co-owners of Brothers II Business Machines in Bohemia, stood at the center of the solar system. They pointed to three gray, Sunny Boy converters that turn 107 solar panels into a generator.
“We’re a power plant. As long as the sun’s up, were making power,” William Cavallo said of a system powering the building and electric-fueled fork lifts. “The return on investment is 2 1/2 years for us. Then I have free electricity forever.”
Although going solar has long been environmental, it’s finally becoming economical. Sun skeptics are switching – convinced by information, not ideology.
“What was the motivator that pushed me over the edge?” John Cavallo said of the shift his company made last April. “Primarily it was the payback time.”
The Cavallo brothers’ 3,000-square-foot system of 107 panels installed by Southampton-based GreenLogic generates 26 kilowatts of power. It cost $85,000, but only $17,000 after rebates and incentives.
“This is the cool part: I don’t care how much [utility rates] go up; my meter keeps spinning backwards,” William Cavallo said. On the other hand, he does care, he said, because high rates “are going to drive businesses from Long Island.”
The Long Island solar industry may finally have gone from good idea to good investment. The 10,000th solar roof was installed here last year, solar job fairs have cropped up and companies train workers in “boot camps.”
Solar hit the strip mall when the EmPower Solar Design Center, a 2,800-square-foot solar store, opened last year near Panera and King Kullen in Islandia.
“Long Island has explosive growth,” said Princeton, N.J.-based NRG Home Solar President Kelcy Pegler Jr., with Bohemia offices. “It could be considered the epicenter of growth in customers and employees.”
The solar faithful have company: the proof that it’s catching on is on rooftops as firms find savings and salvation from the sun.
“It’s building on itself,” said Island Park-based EmPower Solar CEO David Schieren, whose firm added 20 workers last year to reach 70 and plans to hire 20 to 30 this year. “The technology works. People are saving money.”
There may be green gold in those roofs in a region with among the nation’s highest electric costs, fueled largely by billions in debt related to the decommissioned Shoreham nuclear power plant, offline since May 1, 1989.
Hurricane Sandy increased the exodus from utility electricity, creating a second storm: a sun storm. Long Islanders are fleeing the grid.
The solar industry nationwide is soaring, growing to 174,000 jobs in 2014 from 143, 000 in 2013 and 93,500 in 2010, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Solar Foundation.
Solar installer jobs nationwide rose from 44,000 to 97,000 from 2010 to 2014; manufacturing positions grew from 25,000 to 32,500.
New York’s solar industry in 2014 added 2,100 jobs at about 500 companies to reach 7,300, fourth nationwide.
Long Island grew to more than 1,300 jobs, just under 20 percent of the state total.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo set aside $1 billion for solar incentives which, along with federal incentives, are fueling the solar surge.
“You have more solar jobs in Long Island and the New York City metropolitan area than the rest of the state,” Solar Foundation President Andrea Luecke said. “If you compare it with the overall economy in New York, it’s meteoric.”
Island in the sun
While the economics matter, there is an emotional component. Numerous outages and inevitable rate hikes are forcing the switch.
“In certain markets, [solar is] not more expensive than conventional power,” said Aaron Halimi, director of utility project development for San Diego, Calif.-based Borrego Solar. “It’s a function of the sun, permitting and land requirements and wholesale power costs.”
Most firms with solar lost power during Sandy, since they need some grid power to operate. But utility fatigue is fueling the flight to the sun.
“In Long Island, people have been aware of how they get electricity more than the typical consumer,” Pegler said. “We’re not so much selling residential solar in Long Island. We’re providing it to customers who ask for it.”
He said customers aren’t so much shopping around as deciding whether or not to switch.
“We really don’t compete,” Pegler added. “Customers don’t choose between three or four solar companies. They decide whether to go solar or not.”
Firms nationwide are setting up shop here. NRG earlier this year held a job fair in Bohemia, attracting 46 and hiring 24.
“One of the most attractive parts of the space for them is the opportunity to grow,” Pegler said. Firms hire workers for engineering, paperwork, sales, marketing, accounting, building permits and managing projects.
“There’s growth in all of our departments,” Schieren said.
Firms even go door-to-door, catching customers at home where they would build the systems.
“We don’t want to disturb people,” Schieren added. “We want to be polite, but communicate the value proposition.”
Many people go solar for free through on-bill financing in which utilities front money – and take payments as the property owner’s new bill.
But companies also install systems free of charge (taking rebates themselves) and selling solar back to building owners. Some critics say residents and companies lose much of the benefit that way.
“I would never consider it,” William Cavallo said of leasing solar. In addition to his business, he plans to have a solar system installed at his home.
“My house will have free electricity for its life,” he said. “The system is going to cost me basically nothing.”
Clouds on the horizon
Companies are becoming more efficient and system costs are going down, fueling growth. EmPower expects to make more than 300 installations in 2015, up from 200 in 2014.
Firms required 15.5 workers per installed megawatt in 2014, down from 19.5 in 2012, according to the Solar Foundation.
“When you start to do more than 300 jobs a year,” Schieren said, “you develop a well-oiled machine.”
William Cavallo said residential systems easily cost $60,000 seven years ago; it’s now half that.
“It didn’t make good sense,” he said. “Now the system is going to cost me basically nothing.”
But the solar industry may be a victim of its own success. New York State is cutting rebates, as more projects go up.
The federal government plans to cut a 30 percent investment tax credit to 10 percent for commercial projects and zero for residential projects in 2017. And firms are struggling to hire and train.
“There’s a shortage,” Luecke said. “Every year it appears to be harder to find people who meet their standards.”
A weak economy provided a robust workforce for the solar industry. But as the economy recovers, workers opt for other professions.
“A lot of the skilled labor has gone back to the construction industry,” Luecke said.
Long Island’s solar industry could face clouds due to a lack of land for commercial projects – and a grid that can’t accept huge projects in some areas.
“It’s absolutely limited,” Halimi said. “The amount of solar energy that can penetrate the grid is limited as well.”
The Cavallo brothers, meanwhile, are preparing to buy electric cars that can get 125 miles per gallon. Now that their building produces power, they want to pump it into vehicles.
“I’m getting a Volt,” John Cavallo said. “That will complete the plan.”