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Solar Panels

Matt Damon in a scene from ‘The Martian’

By Daniel Dunaief

One of the seminal, and realistic, scenes from the movie “The Martian” involves astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, clearing the dust from a solar panel.

The cleaning process not only made it possible for the space station on Mars to continue to generate solar energy, but it also alerted the National Aeronautics and Space Administration staff on Earth to the fact that Watney somehow survived a storm and was alive and stranded on the Red Planet.

Alexander Orlov Photo from SBU

Back in 1967, engineers from NASA proposed a system to remove dust from solar panels, which can deprive space stations of energy and can cause rovers and other distant remotely operated vehicles to stop functioning. Washing these solar cells on dried out planets with water is not an option.

That’s where Alexander Orlov, a Professor of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering in the College of Engineering and Applied Science, his graduate student Shrish Patel, Victor Veerasamy, Research Professor of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering at Stony Brook University, and Jim Smith, Chief Technology Officer at Bison Technologies and a board member at the Clean Energy Business Incubator Program at SBU, come in.

Working at a company Orlov founded called SuperClean Glass, Orlov, Patel and other colleagues tried to make an original effort started by NASA feasible. The particles have an electric charge. An electric field they created on the solar glass lifts the particles and then throws them away.

The process recently became a finalist in the Department of Energy’s American-Made Solar Prize for 2021. The 10 companies who are finalists get a $100,000 prize and $75,000 in vouchers from the Department of Energy to test their technology.

The DOE will announce two winners in September of 2021, who will each get an additional half a million dollars and $75,000 in vouchers to develop and test their prototypes.

Orlov, who was delighted that this effort received the recognition and the funds, said the company would use the money to develop prototypes and verify that ‘this technology works at the National Renewable Energy Lab.”

SuperClean Glass is creating prototypes of larger scale to show that turning on a power supply will cause dust to levitate and be removed within seconds.

At this point, Orlov estimates that companies can recoup the additional cost of using this technology within four to five years. The average lifespan of a solar panel is about 25 years, which means that companies could increase their energy efficiency for the 20 years after the initial investment in the technology.

Orlov said the current state of the art for cleaning solar panels typically involves using either water, getting people to dust off the surface, or deploying robots.

This device used for experiments is a highly transparent electrodynamic shield deposited on glass to repel dust from solar panels. Image courtesy of SuperClean Glass Inc

In Egypt, where labor costs are lower, companies can pay people to remove dust with brushes. While robots reduce the cost of labor, they are not always efficient and can break down.

Some companies put a coating on the panels that allows rainwater to wash the dust away more easily. That, however, relies on rain, which is scarce in desert conditions.

Orlov originally became involved in trying to develop an alternative to these methods when Sam Aronson, the former director of Brookhaven National Laboratory, contacted him following a visit to the Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya.

When he visited the archeological site in Kenya, Aronson saw that dust frequently reduced the efficiency and effectiveness of the solar panels. The dust problem is not specific to Kenya or the United States, as many of the most attractive sites for solar panels are in regions with considerable sun and little rainfall. The benefit of minimal precipitation is that it provides access to critical sunlight, which generates energy.

The downside of these sites, however, is that the dry, sunny climates often produce dust.

Orlov researched the NASA technology, where he discovered that it wasn’t efficient and couldn’t be scaled up.

Using $150,000 he received from the New York State energy Research and Development Authority, or NYSERDA, Orlov and Patel started reaching out to solar panel manufacturers to determine the price point at which such a dust cleaning removal service might be viable.

“We conducted interviews with 180 people who use solar panels to find out the particular price point where this technology becomes attractive,” Orlov said. That was the steep curve, to do economic analysis, financial projections and to understand what the market wants. All that is not present in [typical] academic research.”

They reduced the power consumption for electrodes by a factor of five. They also explored commercial methods for scaling up their manufacturing approach.

Dust isn’t the same throughout the world, as it is a different color in various areas and has different mineral contents.

“In the future, depending on where this might be deployed, there needs to be some tweaking of this technology,” Orlov said.

As a part of the technology roadmap for the work they are proposing, the SuperClean effort includes a self-monitoring system that would activate the electrodes on the shield if needed to repel an accumulation of dust.

Orlov described the market for such a self-cleaning and efficient process as “very significant.” He is hoping to provide a field demonstration of this approach later this year. If the process continues to produce commercially viable results, they could license the technology within two to three years.

In the near term, Orlov is focused on producing results that could enhance their positioning for the DOE’s grand prize.

“There are a lot of steps before September to be eligible” to win the $500,000, he said. The biggest hurdle at this point is to get positive results from the National Renewable Energy Lab and demonstrate that the technology is effective and also durable.

“Our expectation is that it should last for 25 years, but the lab, which is going to do the testing, is the gold standard to verify that claim,” he said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) File photo by Sara Meghan Walsh

As part of New York State’s commitment to reach zero-carbon emissions, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced July 3 a $55 million investment for energy storage projects that promotes commercial and residential clean energy use on Long Island. 

“With our nation-leading clean energy goals and aggressive strategy to combat climate change, New York continues to set the example of climate leadership for other states across the country,” Cuomo said. “These incentives for energy storage will help Long Islanders grow their clean energy economy and create jobs while also improving the resiliency of the grid in the face of more frequent extreme weather events.”

The initial roll out includes nearly $15 million in incentives available immediately from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority for both residential and commercial installations. Additional compensation is also available from PSEG-LI’s Dynamic Load Management tariff, which pays customers to reduce the amount of grid electricity used when demand is highest. The energy storage system paired with solar can enable this to be accomplished. 

 The current NYSERDA incentive is $250 for each kilowatt hour of energy storage installed up to 25 kilowatt hours for a residential system and 15 megawatt hours for a commercial system.  

NYSERDA’s NY-Sun program also offers financing for the installation of solar panels.

 “As more renewable resources are brought online throughout the state, energy storage will improve the efficiency of the grid to better integrate resources like solar while providing residents and businesses with a cleaner, more reliable energy system,” Alicia Barton, president and CEO, NYSERDA, said. “This announcement reinforces Long Island’s position as one of the leading clean energy markets in New York and moves the state closer to reaching Governor Cuomo’s aggressive 3,000 megawatts by 2030 energy storage target.”

The state estimates that the 2030 target equates to powering 40 percent of New York homes with carbon-free technology.

The remaining funds will be allocated over the next three to five years and will be used to drive down costs and scale up the market for these clean energy technologies. The incentives support energy storage installed at customer sites for standalone systems or systems paired with solar.

“Incentivizing energy storage projects on Long Island is a necessary step in order to develop our renewable resource capacity,” Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), chair of the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee, said. “This will help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, stabilize energy bills for ratepayers, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I applaud Governor Cuomo for this initiative and look forward to more proposals that will ensure New York State takes the lead in addressing climate change.” 

Above, the Cusumano family of St. James stands in front of their newly donated 84-panel solar system that will be used to offset the costs of raising a son with autism. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

By Sara-Megan Walsh

A St. James family is looking ahead to brighter days raising their son with autism after receiving a generous donation.

The Cusumano family received an extensive 84-panel solar system donated by SUNation Solar Systems and its not-for-profit SUNation Cares, which will supply free electricity for life. The funds saved will be used to help their 14-year-old son Dylan attend weekly equine therapy sessions at Pal-O-Mine Equestrian in Islandia.

“When we can all come together as a team it makes a tremendous difference in people’s lives, especially people like the Cusumanos who are most deserving to reap the benefits and tremendous rewards that were generously donated,” said Lisa Gatti, founder and executive director of Pal-O-Mine.

The solar panels donated to the family were the end result of positive community building by several local companies. Gatti said she was introduced to Scott Maskin, CEO and co-founder of SUNation, a Ronkonkoma-based solar panel company, through Empire National Bank, where they are both customers. Maskin said as he learned firsthand about the nonprofit work done by Pal-O-Mine to benefit children with disabilities, he asked Gatti if there was a family he could step in to help. That’s when the Cusumanos were nominated.

“We are overwhelmed by the generosity and I think we were stunned because we feel there are so many needy families on Long Island,” said Amy Cusumano, Dylan’s mother. “The gift of solar panels lessens our load or burden so the money we are using to pay an electric bill, we now get to decide if we can increase his horse time or do something else for the boys.”

Dylan, the oldest of the Cusumano’s five sons, started horseback riding at Pal-O-Mine at age 5 due to the therapeutic benefits. Equine therapy provides children with disabilities with positive vestibular, or inner ear, input, can improve speech and language skills, help with walking and can increase fine and gross motor skills, according to Gatti.

“[Dylan] didn’t speak when he came to Pal-O-Mine,” she said. “One of his first words was ‘walk.’ I remember Ms. Cusumano being shocked he began to speak while he was riding.”

Despite seeing improvement, Amy Cusumano said she was forced to discontinue her son’s horseback riding lessons for a few years when financial hardship struck. She said it was heartbreaking.

“When he’s on the horse, he’s so at peace, he’s so totally Dylan,” his mother said. “So when we can give him that half an hour a week where he can just enjoy himself and have some fun, it’s money well spent.”

Cusumano said Dylan’s medical care costs run $35,000 to $40,000 a year on average between co-payments, therapy and those services not covered by insurance. The estimated $3,000 a year the solar panels will save the Cusumano family will be used to help pay for his adaptive riding, which typically costs $260 for four 30-minute sessions.

Dylan’s individually tailored plan through Pal-O-Mine has him riding Ella, a 12-year-old palomino haflinger, once a week. His mother said Dylan frequently requests to go see his horse and cares for her. Horseback riding is motivating to him, and gives Dylan a sense of empowerment and independence, according to Cusumano.

“Autism is not the primary thing we are thinking about,” she said. “Maybe we’re thinking about how amazing he is or that he can ride a horse.”

Workshop gives incentives for homeowners to install solar panels

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Romaine opens the Solarize Brookhaven event at Town Hall. Photo by Giselle Barkley

A little sunshine never hurt anyone, especially now that solar power is here to stay.

On Saturday, the Town of Brookhaven hosted its second annual Solarize Brookhaven event featuring SUNation’s solar system program. SUNation was one of almost 30 solar companies that the town considered to help encourage Brookhaven resident to go solar, be energy efficient, and save money.

According to Christina Mathieson, chief administrative officer of SUNation, in the company’s 13 years of business, it’s sold 1,600 solar systems and saved solar users around $3 million annually. Mathieson said residents qualify for the program if their electricity bill will cost less when they go solar.

“Our goal is to [help] customers offset almost 100 percent of their electrical consumption,” Mathieson said in an interview before the event.

Although residents can produce their own electricity using the solar system program, users must remain connected to the Public Service Enterprise Group. The energy generated by the solar panels is not stored in the user’s home, but in PSEG’s grid system. This is regardless of whether residents buy or lease SUNation’s service. According to Mathieson, homeowners who decide to buy the service and lock in their payment when they go solar will eventually pay around $11 to stay connected to PSEG.

During the event on Oct. 10, residents could speak to one of several site evaluators from SUNation to discuss going solar and what it may cost for each specific resident. Roofs that get ample sunlight during the day or those facing the South, East or West will produce more energy than houses with a roof facing North, according to Mathieson. Site evaluators can see a prospective client’s roof via Google Earth and determine how much going solar will cost and save a client, depending on the orientation and overall location of the perspective buyer’s roof and the location of their home. SUNation’s solar system program will last up to 40 years. In a 30-year period, Mathieson saw clients save anywhere from $60 to $250,000 dollars after going solar.

According to Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), the purpose of the Solarize Brookhaven event is to help everyday people find a means to buy or finance solar for their home. Romaine also highlighted additional benefits of going solar, including the fact that solar has created 175,000 jobs and has pumped nearly $15 million back into the economy.

But reducing greenhouse gases is another benefit to going solar. During the event, Romaine said town and state officials alike are “involved [with Solarize Brookhaven] because [they’re] trying to reduce the greenhouse gases in [Brookhaven] town.”

Brookhaven’s chief environmental analyst, Anthony Graves, added that the idea was to have the event so residents know they will be getting a good, reliable system at a good price.

“And that’s what we’ve gotten with SUNation,” Graves said.

Graves also said the company provided a 15 percent discount on its service. In order to appeal to the masses and encourage more residents to participate in the program, residents will receive a check for $1,000 if 100 people participate in the program. The deal taps into the fact that, according to Mathieson, one of the main reasons people go solar is because their neighbor went solar.

But for residents like Stephen Plesnik of Miller Place, his electric bill was enough for him to look into going solar. Plesnik said he was looking into solar as he saw his electricity bill continually increasing over time.

“I’ve been looking into solar for the last six months and since this is a company that is approved by the Town of Brookhaven, supposedly they’re giving a better deal,” Plesnik said, while waiting to speak to a site evaluator at the event.

And SUNation’s service offers one of the better deals when it comes to going solar, according to Mathieson and town officials.

“Most of us never thought that we could have a system that made electricity,” Mathieson said. “We almost never imagined not paying an electric bill. The days of people having to lay out money to own solar systems are over, and the days of a return of investment are gone.”

Solar shingles shine on the roof of a Long Island home. Photo from Division 7

The idea of installing solar panels to a roof as a source of electricity for a home is not exactly prehistoric.

Reducing the use of electricity or gas to power and heat homes undoubtedly has a positive effect on the environment. Despite being fairly new to the market, solar panels may be supplanted soon by a less expensive, more effective alternative.

Solar shingles have been available in the United States for about five years, according to an estimate by Richard Ciota, a Stony Brook resident who owns Division 7 Inc. Ciota’s 21-year-old roofing company is located in Lake Grove. Its residential division is the only one in the Suffolk County, Nassau County and New York City areas permitted to sell Dow Powerhouse solar shingles.

Solar panels have been available for decades, Ciota said in an interview at Division 7’s main office. They are at this point more efficient in generating electricity than shingles in terms of kilowatts per-square-foot of roof space, though there are problems associated with panels that contribute to the higher cost Ciota said.

“When you’re putting a solar panel onto a roof surface, you’re mounting that solar panel to the rafters through the existing roof,” Ciota said about the older technology, which his company offered prior to the availability of shingles. “So the waterproof technology has got to be perfect because you could be putting 40, 50, 60 penetrations through a perfectly good roof.”

Solar shingles are installed onto the roof of a Long Island residence. Photo from Division 7
Solar shingles are installed onto the roof of a Long Island residence. Photo from Division 7

Wind, shade from trees, excessive heat and animals are other factors that Ciota said are enemies to solar panels, which are installed on top of asphalt shingles and leave wiring exposed to the elements. Wind can cause the panels to pull the asphalt shingles away from the roof, which is an annoying and costly problem to have to fix after panels are installed.

Solar shingles replace asphalt shingles. They are waterproof and work in the same way that any conventional asphalt shingle would along with the added benefit of a reduced electric bill and a more environmentally friendly home than one that runs on electricity or gas heating.

Despite availability and the obvious benefits, solar panels only currently exist on about 5 percent of Long Island homes, according to Ciota. The number of homes with solar shingles is exponentially smaller.

John Petroski, Division 7’s director of solar and residential operations, estimated that the company has done about 70 shingle installations on Long Island since 2012 when Dow partnered with Division 7 Inc. Petroski said they have about 35 booked jobs left to complete, as part of Dow’s pilot program, which offered leasing or purchasing options to consumers.

“The way [Dow] is moving forward with the technology of the shingles, the improvements they’re making — they’re covering their bases,” Petroski said in reference to the notion that unanticipated issues have arisen as solar panels have gotten older, which could also happen to the shingles.

“I personally think the solar shingle will take over the marketplace,” Ciota said about the future as the technology continues to be upgraded. “There are new generations of solar shingles that will be coming out that will increase its efficiency and eventually they’ll probably tie up and meet [the efficiency of panels].”

Other companies sell solar shingles on Long Island, though Dow’s are widely considered to be on the cutting edge. In 2012 Dow received a Breakthrough Award from the magazine Popular Mechanics for pioneering an integrated solar roofing system, according to a press release on Dow’s website.

Note: John Petroski, director of solar and residential operations, is this writer’s brother.

Huntington residents could find it easier to afford solar panels on their homes, thanks to new initiative backed by town and City University of New York officials. File photo by Victoria Espinoza

Huntington Town residents looking to go solar can let the sunshine in at a discount, thanks to a new group-purchasing program spearheaded by town and City University of New York officials.

On Monday afternoon, town hall officials unveiled Solarize Huntington, a program that attempts to incentivize residents to go solar by offering discounts of up to 25 percent on installation costs through installer Direct Energy Solar. The level of discount would increase as the number of participants in the Solarize Huntington program grows, according to the town and Sustainable CUNY of the City University of New York. Solarize Huntington will also include educational workshops about solar energy and guidance on the process of going solar.

The program, which officially launched today, May 4,  runs through Sept. 10.

Homeowners who participate could purchase, finance or lease solar systems from Direct Energy Solar, the installer selected by CUNY through a competitive bidding process, town spokesman A.J. Carter said. Direct Energy Solar is also offering an additional $500 discount to the first 20 homeowners who sign contracts.

The average solar installation, with state and federal incentives included, could cost a Huntington homeowner around $16,000 for a 7-kilowatt system, according to Justin Strachan, a New York State solar ombudsman with Sustainable CUNY. Solarize Huntington could reduce that cost to somewhere around $12,000, he said.

Solar is already popular in Huntington Town, CUNY and town officials noted on Monday. Officials from Sustainable CUNY, Supervisor Frank Petrone (D), Councilwoman Susan Berland (D) and Councilman Mark Cuthbertson (D) attended a press conference launching the program on Monday at which Petrone said that last year, the town received 500 applications for solar installation permits.

“So that tells you the popularity and it tells you people are yearning for a program, for a supervised program, and something that’s going to be meaningful and cost-effective,” Petrone said.

Laurie Reilly, who directs communications for Sustainable CUNY, said the Solarize Huntington program is just one program among other solar initiatives funded by a more than $1 million U.S. Department of Energy grant. She also said Huntington was selected for the program because, at the time of the grant application, the town committed to work with Sustainable CUNY to make solar more accessible to residents.

“Huntington was the first one to step up and the first one to say, ‘We would like to do this.’”

This isn’t the only thing Huntington Town has done in recent years to encourage and increase the use of solar power to cut down on the consumption of fossil fuels. The town recently approved a fast-track process for approval of solar installation permits and used a federal grant several years ago to install solar panels at town hall, the town said in a statement.

The program launch is thanks to the partnership of Sustainable CUNY, the New York Solar Smart Program, the town and the town’s Advisory Committee on Energy Efficiency, Renewables, and Sustainability, according to a town statement.

Residents interested in signing up for the program can do it online at solarizhuntington.com, or at one of the Solarize 101 informational workshops the town is sponsoring to help residents learn of the program’s benefits.

The first workshop will be held on Monday, May 11 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at town hall.

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File photo

From unfunded mandates to grounds maintenance, school districts are burdened with many costs, but high energy bills don’t have to be one of them.

State Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset) recently introduced legislation that would strengthen the state’s support of alternative energy systems in school districts. All types of alternative energy systems — whether solar, wind and/or geothermal  — would be eligible for state building aid. The legislation would also remove a requirement that has the systems meet an 18-year payback window in order to receive aid. These changes make sense, as they’ll empower school districts to go green while also saving taxpayers money.

A few school districts on the North Shore have discussed installing solar panels on their building roofs, while two — Miller Place and Three Village — are moving forward with plans to install the panels. In Miller Place, the panels are expected to save the district more than half its utility budget. In Three Village, by the time the project is paid off, the district could be saving hundreds of thousands of dollars.

While we encourage other school districts to investigate how alternative energy systems could help their districts reduce costs, we also hope they’ll continue searching for ways to reduce their energy consumption. Replacing an energy source with a clean alternative is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t do anything to address a greater energy consumption problem that pervades our communities, including in our schools.