“Here Comes the Sun” – Efforts to Install Solar Power on Fishers

by Jane Ahrens

December 12, 2022

We were disheartened to read the column posted by Tom Siebens of the Fishers Island Electric Corporation (FIEC) on November 29, 2022 titled “Update on Electric Network Modernization” which gave the false impression that FIEC supports customer-owned renewable energy generation on Fishers Island. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.

New York Public Service Law requires electric utilities like FIEC to allow their customers to install small-scale renewable electricity systems such as the rooftop solar panels that are seemingly everywhere except Fishers Island. To do its part to address the climate crisis, New York State has established a target of 70% renewable energy by 2030, including 6,000 megawatts of solar by 2025 and a significant portion of that must come from small-scale generation like rooftop solar panels.

Accordingly, Fishers Island Community Center in early 2021, and more recently Brad Burnham, informed FIEC of their plans to reduce their carbon footprints by installing solar panels on their properties. The two projects are small – less than 30 kilowatts combined – and were both intentionally designed as “zero export” systems which wouldn’t feed energy into FIEC’s distribution grid. The Town of Southold already issued a building permit for one of the projects. Quite surprisingly, FIEC responded in writing by threatening to cut off power to the Community Center and Brad’s homes if we installed the solar systems.

In its effort to thwart our solar projects, FIEC has taken a dizzying array of factually and legally baseless positions. For example, FIEC originally claimed that unidentified but purportedly insurmountable technical impediments (apparently unique to FIEC among all New York utilities) prohibit solar panels on Fishers Island. The Community Center and Brad Burnham responded by providing FIEC with detailed technical information (prepared by experienced electrical engineers) demonstrating that the proposed solar projects would have absolutely no negative impact on the reliability or safety of FIEC’s system. FIEC then changed its position and claimed that Fishers Islanders cannot be allowed to install solar panels because it would cause them to purchase less power from FIEC, which would reduce FIEC’s revenues and hurt its bottom line. FIEC’s economic arguments are baseless and, in the case of the Community Center, neglects the fact that it has increased its electrical use over the past few years and actually plans to increase its demand by installing more air conditioning units while creating new customer demand at its paddle tennis facility next door.

The Community Center and Brad Burnham have repeatedly reached out to FIEC to find a compromise, but FIEC has flatly refused. Consequently, we were left with no choice but to file a formal complaint against FIEC with the New York Public Service Commission this past September. (See attachment below and a subsequent reply to FIEC’s response in October.) Portions of Mr. Siebens’ November 29th column are clearly in response to our complaint.

Tom’s column claims FIEC faces various “challenges” relevant to development of renewable energy on Fishers Island, including that FIEC’s “electricity distribution network is inefficient and vulnerable due to aging components.” However, FIEC’s failure to properly maintain its infrastructure shouldn’t allow it to deprive us of the right to install solar panels just like every other citizen of New York – or to frustrate the state’s clean energy and climate change policies.

Tom also suggests customer-owned renewable energy should not be a priority on Fishers Island because FIEC obtains electricity from the “New England grid,” which he claims “currently obtains more than 50% of its power from carbon neutral sources.” That statement is both factually incorrect and misleading. In reality, 53.7% of its electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, another 27% comes from nuclear power plants, and around 7% from hydroelectric. Only 12% of the power as defined by the “New England grid” is from renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

Tom concludes by stating that “if” FIEC “is going to interconnect with customer-owned generation,” FIEC will first need to revise its tariff and leaves open the possibility that FIEC will never agree to allow interconnected solar panels on Fishers Island. Given FIEC’s claims that customer-owned renewable energy will hurt its profits and that they have been promising to develop strategies for alternatives energy since 2009, the FIEC will doubtless drag its feet on revising its tariff for as long as possible – perhaps for years.

Fishers Island has enormous untapped renewable energy potential. With our Island’s natural solar and wind resources, we could eventually serve as a model to our children and the nation of a truly carbon-neutral community. In the near term, however, we cannot allow a recalcitrant local electric utility to prioritize profit over Fishers Islanders’ rights to do their part to address climate change through development of customer-owned renewable energy equipment like rooftop solar panels. Instead of obfuscating, the FIEC should work to reduce Islanders’ costs in this time of soaring electric rates by encouraging alternative energy sources. They should also be exploring the development of a solar field on Fishers which we understand could provide more than enough power to meet the Island’s increased demands during the summer, negating the need for a new cable from the mainland for the foreseeable future.

We urge everyone to pay attention to this issue and encourage the FIEC to work with its customers to make near term progress on renewable energy rather than putting this off with the promise of future fixes.

With thanks and best wishes for the Holidays,

Luke Fowler
Board President

Featured Photo

Beach Rocks sun gaze, 12/10/20 Photo by Richard Breining

A Fishers Island Community Center Program

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