- Associated Press - Monday, May 23, 2016

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - An ambitious program to install solar panels at New York’s public schools, already off to a slow start, has to recruit a new partner after the financial collapse of one of the nation’s largest solar companies.

The New York Power Authority said SunEdison’s move into bankruptcy court protection last month means the agency has to find at least one other company to join SolarCity as a contractor for the “K-Solar” initiative.

The companies had been given territory as recommended contractors by the authority, with SunEdison to handle work in western and central New York and Long Island. SolarCity, already the beneficiary of major support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, got the balance of the state, excluding New York City.

“In light of the SunEdison bankruptcy, NYPA is issuing a new solicitation for developers to join Solar City as qualified K-Solar providers,” the authority said in response to an inquiry from The Associated Press. “This approach ensures the program continues without interruption and allows NYPA to continue to support the installation of clean and affordable solar on schools across the state.”

Cuomo announced K-Solar, part of his $1 billion NY-Sun Initiative, in September 2014. NYPA said it issued a “request for qualifications” from solar vendors that month and winnowed an initial list of 40 to SunEdison and SolarCity in May 2015. The authority said the decision was made by a “committee of K-Solar program staff and other staff members who work on renewable energy programs.” It said the NYPA board didn’t need to act because the program isn’t using authority money.

With that settled, state officials said the program was initially delayed because the state education department was asked to effectively grant a waiver of rules requiring school districts to put big projects out for bid. That unusual request took time and resulted in guidance that districts could use SolarCity or SunEdison, or go their own way choosing a contractor.

“In this case, NYPA completed that process for the district by issuing an RFP for appropriate solar vendors, vetting them to be sure they had the resources to be successful,” said education department spokeswoman Jeanne Beattie. While districts could choose another provider, she said that, “Since NYPA went through this process for them, in most cases it did not make sense to re-create the same process on an individual district basis.”

Along with questions about whether Missouri-based SunEdison can emerge solvent from Chapter 11, SolarCity took hits to its share price earlier this month when it reported losing $283 million in the first quarter of this year and again scaled back projections for future business.

New York has a strong interest in the financial health of San Mateo, California-based SolarCity, which is supposed to begin manufacturing solar panels at a massive factory being built as the centerpiece of Cuomo’s “Buffalo Billion” economic development program. Construction and manufacturing equipment are being covered with $750 million in public money. SolarCity has committed to investing $5 billion over 10 years, hiring almost 1,500 workers at the plant for five years and employing at least 2,000 more people across the state.

That project has come under scrutiny from federal investigators as part of a broad probe of the Cuomo administrations economic development programs.

NYPA said it expects work to begin on the first K-Solar school projects this summer. As of last week, NYPA said 16 school districts of the state’s nearly 700 public school districts have signed commitments for construction and three have permits to begin work: the New York Institute for Special Education in the Bronx and the Tarrytown and Somers districts in Westchester County.

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Follow George M. Walsh on Twitter at @gmwalshAP

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