Owens Corning, the Fortune 500 buildings materials company, is probably best known for its pink fiberglass insulation. Now it’s got another claim to fame: the company’s Bethlehem, New York manufacturing plant, already the winner of a New York State Governor’s Award for pollution prevention, is, as of [recently], home to one of the largest industrial solar arrays in the Empire State. The company flipped the switch on the 2.7 megawatt installation [on October 15] at noon–just as sunshine broke through the clouds, as if on cue. I was happy to be there for the big event. The solar array was a beautiful sight—approximately 9,000 glimmering, ground-mounted, photovoltaic panels located on more than nine acres, on a former cornfield close to the plant. (The project went through a local land use and environmental review by the Town of Bethlehem, which strongly supported the project).
The array demonstrates the benefits of pollution-free electricity, producing enough clean power from the sun to supply some 6 percent of the plant’s electricity needs.
And it also demonstrates the benefits of Governor Cuomo’s NY-Sun Initiative, without which this solar array wouldn’t have come into being. The initiative is currently funded through 2015. But we hope that with one last push from the Governor, NY-Sun will live on as a 10-year, $150-million-a-year effort to finally make New York a solar leader. Sunny states like California, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico are, of course, early leaders in installed solar capacity. But Northeastern states also have a huge potential for solar power. Currently, the great state of New York lags behind New Jersey and Massachusetts in total solar power installed. But according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, New York is catching up, thanks to NY-Sun, and is now number 8 in the country for installed solar power, up from number 13 at the beginning of 2013.
NY-Sun has been designed to cost-effectively invest in solar installations for New York homeowners and businesses like Owens Corning, and in so doing, to help drive down the cost of solar for everyone.
The Owens Corning array in Bethlehem is just one example of how this works. The state’s incentives for the project were offered through a competitive bidding process that enabled the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority, which administers the program, to pick the lowest-cost solar contractor to design and install the system. That helps establish a going rate for solar installations in the state. Then, some of the incentives were released to the contractor, Constellation, at the time of construction. (Constellation owns and operates the array; it sells the power back to Owens Corning at a discounted rate.) But other payments will come over the first three years of operation, to make sure the array is producing the amount of power that is promised. “The incentives are designed to make sure New York is getting the biggest bang for our buck,” explains NYSERDA’s Alan Wechsler. Finally, because combining energy efficiency and renewable energy always makes sense, before the solar array went up, Owens Corning had already worked with its local utility, National Grid, to reduce its energy usage by about ten percent.
NY-Sun’s incentives are also helping reduce so-called balance-of-system or “soft” costs. Those are costs for things other than panels that are responsible for the fact that current US solar prices are about twice those of solar prices in Germany. The program supports efforts to reduce unnecessary and costly paperwork; to develop new financing models; to create new, cost-saving types of equipment (think: mounting racks, inverters, and other system components); and, to demonstrate new and/or under-used technologies and practices that can cut solar costs not just for current customers, but, as the solar market matures, eventually, for all of us.
Of course, there’s more to recommend the Owens Corning/Constellation project. By replacing power from the grid with pollution-free solar energy, the company will each year prevent more than 2,300 metric tons of greenhouse gases from entering our already overloaded atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of taking 487 cars off the road annually and a great thing to do as the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy approaches. The reduced electric costs that result from the Bethlehem array will also help keep good manufacturing jobs in the Capital Region—more than three hundred people work at the Owens Corning plant.
Owens Corning, known mostly for its pink fiberglass insulation (over 50% of which, I learned, is made from recycled glass) and its recyclable roofing tiles, may soon become known for its solar arrays. (The company has another one in Kearney, New Jersey.) As Owens Corning celebrates the 75th anniversary of its founding, its commitment to solar power—and to sustainability—will help ensure a bright future well into the 21st century. And solar in New York State will have a bright future too, once the NY-Sun program is extended for another decade.