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Why solar panels are popping up everywhere on Long Island

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Joe SanFilippo of Bellport probably took notice before many of us.

As a mail carrier, he travels up and down the streets of Patchogue at an incredibly slow speed. So it’s safe to say he’s got time to look around. 

He spotted solar panels glazing the roofs of more and more houses along his route.

“I started asking people about them, and about the savings,” he said. “At first it sounded too good to be true. But I’m all about saving money, so when I figured out that I could save money, I said then sign me up.”

Sign up he did, without having to pay anything out-of-pocket, he said.

SanFilippo will now be buying the bulk of his electricity not from PSEG Long Island, but from a company called Vivint  — for the next 20 years. 

There are many like him. In neighborhoods throughout the GreaterPatchogue.com coverage area and across Long Island, seeing solar panels on two, three or more houses is becoming the norm, not the exception.

So what’s happened since the 1980s and the decades that followed, when the only people who could afford solar panels were those able to take out $40,000 in loans and maybe get some decent tax rebates in return?

The answer is simple, people in the industry say. 

It’s called a power purchase agreement.

The novel and increasingly popular PPA arrangement allows solar companies to install and maintain solar panels on a roof with no capital investment on the part of the homeowner. The homeowner then agrees to purchase the electricity from those panels with incremental increases each year, typically for 20 years.

This trend was helped along in New York State in 2012, with the passage in Albany of the NY-Sun initiative, which incentivizes PPAs.

Meanwhile, the solar companies are being subsidized by the federal government.

“PPA allows us to put the panels up on the roof at no cost to the consumer,” explained Michael Rosenberg of Level Solar, a Long Island-based solar company. “We get a federal credit, and we then provide electricity at a lower cost than PSEG.”

“So it’s a real win,” he continued. “The consumer gets free solar panels, gets to drop their electric bills by typically 25 percent. And the company gets to make some good money and employ a bunch of people. And the most important thing is we stop burning carbon and fossils fuels.”

David Spagnoli, a regional sales manager on Long Island for Solar City, the country’s largest solar installation company, said in just two years since entering the Long Island market, the California-based company has signed up about 3,000 customers.

The plan is to sign up many, many more.

“When I started there were between 7,000 and 8,000 employees; they have almost 12,000 now,” said Spagnoli, an East Patchogue resident who left his longtime sales job at Cablevision for the solar industry. “Solar City is bigger than Cablevision at this point. And the goal within the next 12 months is to double in size. They hired 1,300 people last month alone.”

He likens the solar boom to the time when people in the U.S. were transitioning to electricity.

“People were lighting their home with oil, and then someone came knocking on their door and said, we’ve got a better way; we can run electrical lines here,” he said. “It took a little while, but eventually the whole country turned over.”

“Right now we’re on less than 1 percent” of homes, he continued. “But we’re at the beginning stages of everyone transitioning over.”

He said Solar City is positioning itself to thrive even without federal subsidies. The company, which is backed by huge corporations like Google, just broke ground this July on a 1.2 million-square-foot factory in Buffalo. This way, Solar City could use its own panels instead of the Chinese imports that are the current industry standards.

For SanFilippo, he said he was getting increasingly agitated by his ever-increasing PSEG bills. He had grown especially annoyed with the surcharges.

Before inking his deal for solar, he said his biggest concern was entering a 20-year contract.

“That’s a long time,” he said. “But I figured, if I could save $1,200 a year in energy, that’s a lot of money. That’s money I could put toward a family vacation.”

The way Spagnoli sees it, the alternative to a 20-year contract with a solar company like Solar City is a lifelong contract with a virtual monopoly in PSEG.

“You don’t need to sign an agreement with PSEG,” he said. “You just turn your lights on, and you’re in.”

mike@greaterpatchogue.com

Related reading: Everything that can go wrong when you buy solar

Photo: Joe SanFilippo, who now buys the bulk of his power from a solar company, says he couldn’t stand paying any more PSEG bills and was especially turned off by the surcharges. (Credit: Michael White)

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About the author: Michael White

Michael White is a Bellport resident, longtime newspaper reporter and editor, and the owner of greaterpatchogue.com. Email him your story ideas or tips: mike@greaterpatchogue.com