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The Tangled Web of Solar Subsidies

solar subsidies - Tom ShepstoneTom Shepstone
Shepstone Management Company, Inc.

Solar energy is a wonderful thing, but it should pay it’s way without massive solar subsidies from ratepayers and taxpayers when we already have natural gas that doesn’t need subsidies.

New York State, and many others, are out there promoting solar energy like there’s no tomorrow. They are doing so with a panoply of solar subsidies and incentives that hide the true cost. They are following the German playbook and, if not careful, will end up in the same place, building more coal plants to catch up as the cost of all those subsidies becomes unbearable. There are better options that involve a combination of natural gas and renewables deployed in an economically efficient manner, but religious-like opposition to fossil fuels encourages the wasteful deployment of resources on solar schemes that don’t make sense. The Southern Tier Solar Works project appears to be one of those boondoggles.

Southern Tier Solar Works describes itself as an “initiative of the Binghamton Regional Sustainability Coalition (BRSC) in partnership with the Susquehanna Group of the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Catskill Mountainkeeper.” The involvement of the last two closely-related anti-gas entities is the first hint something more than promotion of solar energy is involved–that maybe some political advocacy is also involved with this sucking off the multiple teats of the ratepayer/taxpayer sow.

BRSC is an anti-gas group. It commented on the New York DEC Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, offering this crystal clear perspective on its position:

…We also know that you are under tremendous pressure by the gas industry and a small minority of our population who stand to profit by this venture.”

Then, there was that Binghamton fracking protest rally where Chris Burger, BRSC Director, told this whopper against all plain to see evidence to the contrary:

“History and experience shows that communities as a whole are left economically diminished after fracking occurs, with their future competitiveness severely compromised.”

The group is also listed as an affiliate of the Coalition to Protect New York (motto: “Let’s live frack-free”), which is a Sustainable Markets Foundation (Rockefeller) initiative, about which we have written numerous times. It was incorporated on August 3, 2009 by Chris Burger, fractivist Adam Flint and David Currie and filed for tax-exempt status on November, 9, 2009, at which time it offered this, substantiating the political nature of the group:

BRSC is advocating a statewide moratorium to study the social, economic, and environment al impacts of drilling; to revise and strengthen current regulations accordingly so that our communities and resources are protected; and to bolster enforcement agencies and mechanisms to guarantee the long-term economic, social and environmental health of Upstate New York.

Despite this obvious political activity (also illustrated by the poster to the right), the IRS granted BRSC 501(c)3 tax-exempt status on June 4, 2010. Up to that point, the organization said it operated under the fiscal sponsorship of Broome County Peace Action (interestingly, there seems to be no corporation by that name, but perhaps it uses still another corporate name). It also claimed to have been in line for a $50,000 challenge grant but the grantor was never identified.

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There’s a lot we don’t know about BRSC, in fact, because five years after it incorporated and four years after getting a questionable tax-exemption, it apparently has yet to publicly file a financial return with New York State. The organization made a filing for 2012 with the New York State Charities Bureau, but attached no financial information and claimed no exemption for doing so.  Likewise, there is no Federal 990 return on file with Guidestar. Yet, it has been receiving and spending money for things such as its Southern Tier Solar Works project.

That is just the beginning, though, for there are several other mysteries connected with this project. A look at the Southern Tier Solar Works “About” web page indicates BRSC uses a private for-profit company named ETM Solar, from Endicptt, NY as its “pilot project primary installer.” ETM (stands for extra-terrestrial materials) is run by Dr. Gay E. Canough, who has an aerospace background and has been promoting and building solar projects for over two decades. She also ran unsuccessfully for the Broome County Legislator in 2012, taking an anti-fracking position that qualified her for the Working Families Party endorsement. You can see her in action in this ShaleShock Media production called “What’s the Alternative to Fracking” and this video where she appears (on left) with US Senate Green Party candidate Cecile Lawrence:

Solar Subsidies

Conough had this to say in an article about another solar company coming to the region:

Gay Canough, CEO and founder of ETM, said her company has done 70 site assessments for Southern Tier Solar Works and 14 people are currently signed up for the program.

Each year, Canough said, ETM needs about 60 residential installations to make a modest profit. She said the local market for solar energy is small but growing as people find out more about the benefits.

Canough is an obviously qualified individual, but why is BRSC, as a non-profit, promoting the use of one particular for-profit company? Moreover, this promotion is apparently being done using students working out of Binghamton University under the direction of Adam Flint, one of the BRSC incorporators and Southern Tier Solar Works program manager, under something called the Energy Leadership Program, which is part of the University’s “Center for Civic Engagement.”

Following all this? You can already see the tangled web of solar subsidies and relationships involved, which include using layers of tax-emption and public entities to do what other industries have to do on their own. There also seem to be no worries whatsoever about overlapping interests or the melding of the private and the public, the non-profit and profit.

solar subsidies

It’s worth repeating here that solar is a wonderful thing, but not if you have to go to this extent to make it work. Southern Tier Solar Works is, of course, taking full advantage of a whole range of solar subsidies through the state, which include low-interest financing at ratepayer/taxpayer expense and state and federal incentives that pay for 20-35% of the installation cost, which is how actor Mark Ruffalo ripped off ratepayers/taxpayers for his system. This is no free lunch.

The entanglement of fractivist groups such as the NRDC and its Catskill Mountainkeeper stepchild with Southern Tier Solar Works also raises questions about the appropriateness of Binghamton University’s involvement with this project through its Energy Leadership Program. When, exactly, does Adam Flint leave his role as program manager of the Energy Leadership Program and take up the one as program manager for Southern Tier Solar Works. Non-profits aren’t supposed to be involved in activities that benefit particular individuals, after all. The solicitation of interns to support this activity generates still more questions (emphasis added):

The ELP is looking for new interns for the spring and summer semesters of 2014 to assist with the continued efforts of this campaign. Interns will assist with conducting community outreach services related to energy efficiency and the environment helping to cut carbon, create green jobs, stimulate the local economy, and support community members in becoming energy and environmental stewards. Interns will gain knowledge and experience in the field of energy, environment, public sector, and non-profit work. Overview: Type of position: Intern, compensation TBD Time Commitment: 8-10 hrs/week spring, 25-30 hrs/week summer Location: Binghamton, NY The Energy Leadership Program is aimed to provide energy and environmental education and cliental services to various parts of the community. Interns may service residential and commercial building owners as well as youth. Interns will be trained to provide such services through an understanding and adherence to appropriate policies and programs such as Green Jobs Green New York, 4-H, and local government initiatives. Interns will work be trained to apply a number of outreach strategies including educational presentations, client support, marketing, and information systems management.

The interns, in other words, will operate under the aegis of Binghamton University to market Southern Tier Solar Works projects that benefit one private company, ETM Solar, in particular, as well as the interests of Adam Flint, it’s program manager. How is any of this appropriate and why isn’t BRSC filing financial reports that would identify these relationships, as it is required to do?

Worse yet is the fact this same Energy Leadership Program produced the likes of Isaac Silberman-Gorn, about whom we have written much in the past. He’s a professional fractivist now under the employ of Citizen Action. He’s also offered as an example of the program’s success in a “Success Stories” fact sheet put out by still another entity in this tangled web of solar subsidies called Green Jobs Green New York Southern Tier.

This initiative is self-described as a “community-based energy efficiency program funded through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and by a Department of Energy (DOE) grant obtained by the City of Binghamton.” More solar subsidies, more entities, more entanglement of the public and private. Here’s how Silberman-Gorn is depicted:

solar subsidies

The Energy Leadership Program, in other words, is providing a platform for fractivists while it markets solar subsidies for the benefit of certain individuals and companies. Talk about a conflict of interest and the inappropriate use of public funds! Notice Isaac is even pictured wearing his Citizen Action tee-shirt.

Now you get the full picture. This entire initiative is one big tangled web of politics and solar subsidies that wouldn’t be tolerated in the case of other industries. Solar has a future and we’re happy to advocate for it because natural gas and renewables are naturally complementary, a point we’ve made over and over. But, when you politically bend the rules like this, it simply distorts the economics of energy and ensures problems down the road. Think Europe. Let’s untangle the web before we end up there.

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35 thoughts on “The Tangled Web of Solar Subsidies

  1. Binghamton doesn’t have to worry about its “future competitiveness.” It already got steamrolled by Sayre, Athens, Towanda and Williamsport, Pa.

  2. Tom, I gather that natural gas is unable to stand on its own merits so instead of telling us what’s good about your product you attempt to tear down the work of others. How is solar hurting you? What has solar got to do with anti-fracking activists? Instead of taking care of business and cleaning up the natural gas industry your focus is more about weaving conspiracy theories. I really don’t understand how all this whining helps your industry.

    • I like solar and said so, but I don’t like subsidies of ANY industry and solar couldn’t make it without subsidies. Plus, when it is promoted in such a dishonest way it loses all credibility. Natural gas and solar together, however, are a different story and make enormous sense. Same with wind. By the way, it’s not a conspiracy and it’s not a theory. I documented the relationships and they’re out there for all to see – one guy using his university position to promote his side job, for example.

      • Tom, trust me, you really don’t want to get into a subsidies debate here, as you would lose.

        You use the word “dishonest” – in what way? Solar does exactly what they said it would – free power when the sun shines. Wind turbines generate free power when the wind blows. If you heard otherwise it was in one of those fracking nightmares you have. Besides, given the impact natural gas is having on the environment the use of the term “clean” is the height of dishonesty.

        I agree that for the near term conventional natural gas provides useful energy to counter the variability of some renewables until storage technologies are in place. But let’s not invest in massive NG infrastructure and instead move ahead with the real solution.

        • Your naiveté here is incredible, Clifford. Solar is subsidized at taxpayer and ratepayer expense and the levelized costs are still higher than gas, even though they don’t begin to include the stuff I identified (DOE grants, use of university labor, tax-exemptions, etc.). Your condescension is showing, too, Clifford. I can’t imagine your selling anything with these comments, particularly when you admit NG is important to renewables but don’t want to invest in it. You are living in a fantasy world.

          • And Tom, your willingness to ignore the facts is stupefying.

            Subsidies to natural gas are legendary and include federal R&D (it was DOE who developed hydraulic fracturing), tax incentives (need I list them?), and no tipping fees for your nasty emissions. Because of the poor efficiency of many gas plants (particularly the ones you claim can respond in 15 min.) the fuel costs are high and today solar offers a lower LCOE and wind is lower still. Why do you think peaker plants operate so rarely?

            I’m not trying to sell anything here. But the bull shit meter is into the red zone and I feel obliged to offer something to counteract the baloney. I do not expect you to accept anything I say as I know you are paid to take a firm stance regardless of the facts.

          • First, I am opposed to any subsidies of any industry, including gas and have made that clear, but the notion oil and gas have received anywhere near the subsidies given to renewables per but of energy produced is ludicrous. Again, look at the levelized costs provided by EIA, which don’t begin to cover everything. It seems to me you have a very superficial knowledge of these subjects but like so many fractivists have convinced yourself you’re the repository of all knowledge and everyone else is a rube. That’s why I keep approving your comments, because you are an asset to our side of the debate.

          • Scott, I have no stake in the solar sector, but were it not for a large silver maple that shades my house, I’d have PV panels on my roof.

            What has fracking to do with the US economy. The last time energy prices impacted our economy was the OPEC oil embargo. We are far more vulnerable to financial shenanigans such as what triggered the 2008 Bush recession.

            A concerted program to roll out renewables would do wonders for the US economy. For a given amount of energy produced, renewables generates roughly 2.5 times more jobs as fossil energy. See: Impact Of Renewable Energy On Economic Growth http://tinyurl.com/lh7z568

            You need to realize that the role NG is playing in backing up renewables is the same role it plays in backing up conventional power plants. Sort of a necessary expense as storage technologies are expanded.

        • Clifford are you really saying solar and wind have no environmental impact? On a personal scale, the impacts may seem small, but on a utility skill both solar and wind are every bit as environmentally devastating as natural gas and in some cases more so. Do a Google Earth flyover of the Mehoopany Wind Farm and tell me those 9000 acres are not permanently scarred. All for the same amount of energy as a single NatGas well. You are either blind or ignorant if you say wind and solar are environmentally “clean.” Manipulators like you are a huge problem for intermittent energy.

          • Scott, I looked but could not find the scars. The biggest thing I noted was a huge Proctor and Gamble plant. Isn’t that the US economy showing?

          • There are 22 miles of roads cut into virgin forest (or as “virgin” as it gets in eastern PA). Those roads, unlike pipelines, will never be reseeded with native species of plants — or any species really. They have to remain roads. Each of the 90 turbines sits on a concrete pad that is 50x30x30 feet deep. These pads permanently alter the stormwater runoff patterns of these woodlands. Each turbine requires permanently clearing an acre of forest and stands hundreds of feet about the tallest tree, permanently scarring what you fractivists call “the viewshed.” The night sky bleeps with red warning lights where once there were just stars. And lastly, each turbine holds about 200 gallons of automotive fluids that must be periodically changed. You ignore this in an attempt to manipulate your audience and that is why I am glad you post here. It is easier to expose your agenda in public than it is when you and your type have college interns going door to door with no rebuttal. So thanks.

          • Scott, you seem to not like economic activity associated with renewables and only like those related to fracking.

            Those 22 miles of roads provide public and firefighting access. They will never leak methane. They will never explode and kill someone. Less than 1% of the area has been altered.

            I have to laugh at your mentioning “200 gallons of automotive fluids” that remains contained and presents little risk. Compare that to the mess each fracked well produces with drilling fluids, fracking fluids, etc., all pumped into the ground and into ponds presenting demonstrated risks to the surface run-off, groundwater, and deep aquifers.

            Again, I suggest you clean up your own industry before taking pot shots at others who are doing something to fix our energy predicament.

          • Less than 1 percent has been altered?! You clearly have never been there, particularly at night. I also think permanently altering the runoff for 9000 acres (the concrete pads plus the culverts by the roads) has a greater impact than you recognize. I bow to your spin-doctoring though. Keep going.

        • How come people have to pay more for these “free” energy sources that are subsidized with our tax money then Clifford ??

          How do you propose building these renewables without fossil fuels ??

          What about the environmental damage from mining to make them possible ??

          Do you think these renewables are made with a magic wand ??

          http://theenergycollective.com/robertwilson190/344771/can-you-make-wind-turbine-without-fossil-fuels

          http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/aug/07/china-rare-earth-village-pollution

          http://washington.cbslocal.com/2013/02/11/solar-companies-creating-millions-of-pounds-of-polluted-sludge-contaminated-water/

          • Donald, you don’t pay more. The pay back on solar is a couple years, then the power generated is essentially free. Wind and solar power is already driving down the cost of electrical power in many locations.

            We will manufacture them the same way we are doing it now – the same way we manufacture anything. There’s no mystery here.

            As a fracking advocate, how dare you even bring up “environmental damage?” Are you suggesting the rigs, the drill pipe, the casings, the chemicals are made with a magic wand? Are you suggesting fracking does not require fossil fuels?

          • It’s “a couple years”? Prove it. And, don’t include rebates or incentives.

          • You’re copping out, as I knew you would, Clifford. Also, that’s great about solar growth. I’m all for it, but how much of it is subsidized and what is the actual output vs. the capacity. It’s typically only 15-40% according to this source: http://www.energygroove.net/energy-cost/solar-panel-calculator. Once again, please address the leveled cost and give me just one example where solar has “a couple of years” payback.

          • I wonder if the subsidies approach what is showered on the fossil fuel industry. And yes, as I mentioned earlier, only a fool would expect power from a solar panel at night. What were you expecting?

            If NG is such a great deal then why are you worried about solar?

          • I’m not worried about it. Rather, I’m worried about people foolish to believe your nonsense. Your blithe dismissal of the fact I called you out on the 50GW number illustrates how little respect you have for the facts.

          • Sorry Tom, I missed you calling me out. The 50 GW (GigaWatts) is the sum of the power rating of the panels installed. Multiply that by the capacity factor and by the number of hours in a year and you get the actual amount of clean electricity being generated. Pretty simple stuff.

          • Yes, it is and it’s not 50GW of power, which you would have others believe if someone didn’t challenge you. Regardless, I’m for it and wish you had the same attitude toward gas.

          • Seriously, Clifford, you need to show us the math on how fast BP Wind Energy is going recoup its $250 million investment in the Mehoopany Wind Farm, selling intermittent electricity to 40,000 homes per year. We’re waiting.

          • You asked me to show you the math on how fast BP Wind Energy is going recoup its $250 million investment in the Mehoopany Wind Farm. How would I know. I suspect even BP doesn’t know as they showed their level of competence at Macondo.

          • You keep getting caught with your pants down, Clifford. Please continue.

  3. Clifford, I want to expand on Tom’s point. These unethical and manipulative initiatives hurt the effort to make solar (and wind) viable pieces of our energy mix. The number one way we are going to get there is by having an economy strong enough to support real innovation. The number one way we are going to fail is by putting our resources behind people like this who hide their real agenda. I would like to turn your question around. What threat is natural gas to solar? This entire solar initiative has a foundation of anti-fracking demagoguery. But it has been proven that natural gas actually can exist in concert with solar (see Ivanpah and Florida Power and Light). Lastly, from November to March in Binghamton, it is dark approximately 14 hours a day. It is cloudy much of the time. Doesn’t having a backup plan for electricity and heat make sense? What is the backup plan here?

  4. In summary, this comments section has taught us three things:

    1. There is no energy source that does not come with impacts. The basic question is this: do the benefits of developing the energy outweigh the impacts?

    2. Anti-fracking political activists are all too willing to ignore facts about impacts when it comes to wind and solar, even spinning forest fragmentation and wetlands destruction into “roads for firefighters.”

    3. While pro-fracking activists (like me) agree that a diverse energy portfolio is a good idea and hope for the day when technology can finally solve the costly inefficiencies of wind and solar, anti-fracking activists must demonize natural gas to accomplish their goals. Their arguments don’t stand on their own merits so they have to guilt and bully people into agreeing that our society and economy can operate without fossil fuels.

    This has been fun.

  5. I did a very simple math exercise in regards to Solar PV panels for CO2 emissions in the production of those panels and compared that to rolling out GE Jenbacher Engines for the natural gas side.

    Of all the jobs I had one was pretty cool. I was manager and operator of the only Planetarium at Sea onboard the Queen Mary 2 in the first year that ship sailed. That ship weights over 75,000 tons for Steel Weight.

    A solar panel takes 4 years of the nameplate power out of the said Panels. In the case of two of the largest makers of PV panels, Germany and China, they use COAL as a source of energy. If you took a mere 2 megawatts of Solar PV panels, the coal burn in China would emit the Steel Weight of the Queen Mary two in CO2. The same weight in Jenbacher engines, 60,000 pounds a piece, would replace all coal fired electric plants in my region in Canada reducing Co2 by 50 percent in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. That is over 2,000 megawats.

    The Jenbachers are over 40 percent efficient for electric generation. In heat recovery the units, combined with the electrical efficiency, are over 90 percent efficient. The redirected heat would be able to heat every building in every town and city in my region.

    The landspace for 2 megawats of solar is about 11 acres. A single jenbacher occupies a mere 8 by 60 feet of land space and generates up to 10 megawatts of electricity and the produces about 15 megawatts of thermal energy. Pretty clear to see what is the pretty system, running 24 hours a day, it emits and takes much less of a land foot print.

    The coal fired powered energy used to produce the solar panels use about 600 gallons of water per million BTUs. Natural Gas plants use about 5 to 8 gallons of water to produce a Million BTUS.

    Maintaining the solar panels you don’t account for and that will include water to wash the panels to keep then at max efficiency on a regular basis depending on particulate in your environment. When you wash these panels you are also risking washing chemicals such as arsenic and other nasty things you, my anti-fracking friend, believe will migrate thru 3 million pounds of steel and concrete casings to your ground water.

    Then, there is the disposal of solar panels which contain a greenhouse gas 1,700 times more potent then CO2. Considering the 20 year lifespan of solar panels, the toxic nature and the utter inefficiency it is no wonder 300,000 Germans could not pay 60 cents a KWH for the green energy and probably a million Germans eat only CAT FOOD to pay their electric bill.

  6. take a trip to ny tourist spots. their buses and trollies toot their horns with nat. gas. just a little hypicritical..want to reap the benefits but will not produce it? solar is not clean. would love to see ny manufacture solar from the mining to the end product. i wish these people would do the research on how solar is produced…..maybe tom you could write an article and spell out for them the true filth of solar….

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