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Setting an example in sustainable energy, one public corporation at a time

In connecting a five-megawatt solar array to the power grid, the Monroe County Water Authority is providing cost-certainty for its electricity use while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But the Water Authority, a public benefit corporation, also is setting an example for private enterprise by investing in sustainable energy and embracing environmental stewardship, officials say.

“This project demonstrates how public entities can help lead the way,” Monroe County Executive Adam Bello said. “The future generations are looking at the actions we’re taking now.”

The MCWA partnered with Sol Energy, a renewable energy company based in Washington, D.C., and the New York Power Authority on the project. Energy from the array is fed into the Rochester Gas & Electric grid, and the MCWA then receives a credit on its bill, reducing the annual costs for the pumping and treatment of water by about 15 percent.

“Not only are costs reduced, but it provides steady, predictable costs,” said Mark Cooper, associate vice president of operations for Sol Systems, referring to the ever-fluctuating cost of other energy sources.

The solar array was built on 29 acres of unused Water Authority property, part of a 140-acre plot just off Route 441 in Penfield. The remaining acreage eventually will be home to a new reservoir, when the need arises.

A 5-megawatt solar array will slice 15 percent off the Monroe County Water Authority’s annual electric bill. (Photo by Kevin Oklobzija)

“This project is the first step in our efforts to reduce the carbon footprint and foster sustainability,” said Nick Noce, executive director of the MCWA.

The array was built with bifacial panels, meaning light will be captured by both sides (especially on snow-covered ground in the winter, when sunlight reflects upward). The motorized panels also use a single-axis tracking system, so panels adjust as the sun moves, providing greater efficiency in capturing solar energy.

But the solar panels aren’t the only environmentally friendly feature of the project. A carefully selected cluster of vegetation — “fuzz and buzz,” Cooper called it — was selected for planting within the array panels to enhance bee and insect sustainability.

“It’s really, truly green and is helping the environment,” Noce said.

Productivity and results will be analyzed to determine whether the MCWA considers similar projects in the future.

Bello already is championing the efforts. The county has its own 13-megwatt solar array, part of the administration’s wide-ranging climate action plan meant to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This project fits really neatly into some of the goals we have to become a climate-smart community,” Bello said. “When I took office we did not have a climate action plan, and that’s why leadership by example is so important.”

Other elected leaders also are calling for increased efforts within the business community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Three members of the Monroe County Legislature — Carolyn Delvecchio Hoffman, Susan Hughes-Smith and Mercedes Vazquez Simmons — and Rochester City Council member Mitch Gruber joined elected officials from 23 states in signing a letter urging Walmart to install solar panels on the roofs of its stores, where viable.

The nonprofit Environment America released a report in January that said the installation of solar panels on the rooftops of America’s big-box stores could power nearly 8 million homes. Sol Systems worked with Walmart to install solar arrays on seven stores in California last year.

“It makes a lot of economic sense for businesses that have high-energy demand and rooftop space,” Hughes-Smith said. “And using already available rooftops means you’re not taking up space elsewhere.

“The challenge is always the upfront investment, but over the long run they would save money. But a lot of companies are not looking at the ROI (return on investment) over a 20-year period.”

To accelerate private investment in renewable energy close to home, Monroe County introduced the C-PACE (Commercial-Property Assessed Clean Energy) program last year. C-PACE provides low-interest loans for hard and soft costs associated with clean energy upgrades and building updates.

“Businesses can borrow money at low costs for energy-efficient upgrades or green technology,” Hughes-Smith said. “And they can put the loan on the tax assessment; it stays with the building, not the business.”

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A move toward carbon-free electricity is growing in Rochester area

The power of bulk purchasing and carbon-free sources of energy are factors behind a wave of decisions local municipalities are making about buying electricity.

In the Rochester area, several communities have already agreed to engage with a community choice aggregator — an approved go-between that seeks power from non-carbon-producing sources of energy, such as wind, solar and nuclear power.

Brighton, Brockport, Irondequoit, Pittsford, Victor and Geneva have all agreed to go this route. Rochester’s City Council is considering the same.

Before last year, residential and business customers concerned about global warming basically had three choices. They could invest in and install their own electricity generation, such as solar panels. They could use information on their utility bills to opt out of the general mix of power production (including burning fossil fuels) and opt into forms of electricity that don’t add carbon to the atmosphere. Or they could rely on their utility companies to choose for them.

“Any consumer can choose where they want to pursue the electrons from,” said Sue Hughes-Smith, a principal of Roctricity, the local, administrative partner for JouleCommunity Power, the only community choice aggregator approved to operate in New York.  “We do the education piece. JouleCommunity Power will do the negotiating.”

A CCA essentially adds a fourth choice involving a municipality.

“This moves the decision from utilities to government,” Hughes-Smith said. With an entire community’s utility bills in hand, the CCA can seek bulk power deals. “Now you have a large number of households going to the energy market as one single voice,” she said. Working together under a single CCA, several communities can also influence the source of the power, not just the price, she said.

“Roctricity is interested in carbon-free energy,” Hughes-Smith said, so Joule will seek electricity produced by wind, solar, nuclear and other forms that don’t create carbon, she said. Consumers can still opt out, though. A spokesman for the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency, which has been promoting more sustainable forms of energy, said when a CCA program is initiated in a community, utility customers will receive instructions on how to choose not to participate if they wish.

Joule Assets has US offices in Westchester County, NY, and Oregon; and European offices in Belgium and Italy. Roctricity was formed by Rochester-area people who have been advocating for cleaner sources of energy with the Rochester People’s Climate Coalition.

Roctricity has several upcoming public meetings — two are required in each community that decides to go with a CCA — to share information about the change in electricity purchasing in local communities. They are:

  • Tuesday, Dec. 3, for Brighton, 7 to 8 p.m. at Rustic Village Apartments, at the complex’s entertainment center across from parking lot 12.
  • Thursday, Dec. 5, for Pittsford, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Pittsford Village Hall, 21 North Main St., Pittsford.
  • Wednesday, December 11, for Pittsford, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., at the Pittsford Village Hall.

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