Talking solar energy
RONKONKOMA—SUNation Solar Systems CEO and president Scott Maskin got The Suffolk County News’ attention when he spoke at last month’s Islip Town Board meeting. It was there he told officials that the Town of Islip used to be the largest employer of solar electric installations in New York State. Maskin said the number of people in the Town of Islip who get their income from solar installations has dropped from about 1,000 to 500 or 600. That, of course, doesn’t include the people who work at the supply houses like Allied Electronics in Hauppauge and CED Greentech in Ronkonkoma. Maskin also urged Islip Town officials to consider utilizing the NY-Sun Incentive Program.
This newspaper stopped by SUNation’s offices last week to discuss the state of the Long Island solar industry, the NYSERDA program, President Donald Trump’s recent solar tariff, and what can be done to make the Town of Islip more solar-friendly.
Maskin described New York State’s Solarize campaign as a “group-buying program” to “bring low-cost solar to more people.” The program is aimed at both individuals and groups, whether it is businesses or communities. It also incentivizes those community groups with $5,000 for marketing. Brookhaven, Huntington, North Hempstead, and Southampton have all taken advantage of the program.
Community Solar is another aspect of New York State’s incentive program. This is an option for many Long Islanders who can’t own their own solar energy systems. This could be due to a number of issues, including shading problems or that potential customers rent rather than own their own homes. The program installs solar panels in another location, which allows participants to get credits toward their electricity bill by subscribing to the local energy project. Maskin called this a “game-changer,” but the only problem is finding the roof space. “It’s easier upstate, where they have all that open land,” he said. “We don’t have that on Long Island.”
Maskin pointed out that the Town of Islip is located right in the middle of Long Island, making it an ideal hub for the solar industry. This not only attracted local solar companies, but national ones as well. SUNation and Harvest Power are among the local companies, where Vivint Solar, NRG Energy, Level Solar and SolarCity make up the nationals—all based throughout the Town of Islip. There was a significant surge in solar rebates several years ago, making it a good time to invest in solar. It was during this time that the Town of Islip became the largest employer of solar installations in New York State.
But there’s a “slowdown when it comes to solar adaption.” According to Maskin, there were between 7,500 and 8,000 applications for solar installations with PSEG in 2016, but there were only 4,500 in 2017. He also said national companies aren’t interested in selling solar systems as much as they are interested in selling payments with third-party leasing. “It’s really not a sale, so much as it is a 25-year agreement to purchase electricity,” Maskin said. “It’s not the best thing in the long term, but it’s what [customers] wanted because it was easy.” He also said national companies are leaving now that the “low-hanging fruit is gone.”
The United States installed around 12 billion watts of solar in 2017. China, on the other hand, which heavily subsidizes their solar manufacturing, installed over 50 billion watts of solar last year. The United States’ $28-billion solar industry also imports 80 percent of its solar panels. SUNation acquired as many solar panels as possible because they saw the recent tariff coming. They hope this will push other solar businesses to work more with American companies. A representative for SUNation told us this would be their goal moving forward. So regardless of whether the president’s tariff (which is clearly targeted at China) is part of a move to either improve or hurt the country’s solar industry, it’s safe to say there are going to be fewer panels from overseas. Maskin says these foreign-made panels are lower quality and used largely for the solar leasing model pushed by larger companies.
In a recent Facebook video, he spoke about the 30 percent tariff. Maskin promised he was going to keep politics out of it, but his enthusiasm for the tariff was clear. He said, repeatedly, the United States had the opportunity to become a global leader in the solar industry, but ultimately, decided not to. He said the government gave rebates and tax credits, but didn’t support manufacturing. But in true businessman and/or bipartisanship fashion, Maskin said: “If you hate Trump, buy more solar panels. If you love Trump, buy more solar panels.”
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