In September 2023, the Rockefeller Institute coordinated with New York Congressman Paul Tonko to host the Locally Sourced: Capital Region Climate Policy conference in which policymakers, researchers, and state, federal, and local government practitioners convened to discuss the latest research and initiatives aimed to improve environmental sustainability and reduce the carbon footprint at the municipal level.
Joseph Seman-Graves, former Cohoes city planner, presented at the conference on the city’s planning and development for floating solar utilizing its existing reservoir—a first-in-the-state approach to renewable electricity generation. In this Q&A, we follow up with Seman-Graves on the project to learn more about its electricity generation capacity and environmental advantages, as well as Cohoes’ efforts to leverage public-private partnerships and savings from other environmental projects to secure financing for implementation.
Part One of the Q&A introduces the City of Cohoes, including its demographics, infrastructure, and geographic qualities, as well as its energy needs. The conversation also introduces floating solar as a model for renewable electricity generation and what other environmental advantages floating solar presents the city as a tool to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve environmental sustainability.
Part Two focuses on the collaborations and partnerships with research institutes, federal and state governments, and private industries that helped municipal leaders gain expertise in an emerging technology and begin project planning. The conversation also explores how savings from Cohoes’ previously achieved environmental sustainability projects were leveraged to unlock financing for implementation.
Alexander Morse: Will the generation of electricity through the floating solar site have an impact on consumers, ratepayers? Will savings from the city be passed on to the residents?
Joseph Seman-Graves: Traditionally there are a couple of ways solar projects are developed, but we took an untraditional route.
We considered a more traditional subscription-based approach where we develop and build the system, then sign up our residents through a power purchase agreement. In that model, they would more directly take advantage of savings and maybe see a 10 percent reduction in their energy bills throughout the year. However, we just didn’t see that model working based on how we currently operate in Cohoes. And, we didn’t want to create something that’s going to be subscription-based and have to sign up 1,400 households a year.
Instead, Cohoes is going to own and operate the floating solar site, and as a result, we’re going save $300,000 a year just in electricity and then about another $200,000 that we can either sell off or bank. We’re then going to reinvest that into the city year after year. While that may not impact a given household directly, we wanted to get the broadest possible impact from the project. So, if we can put the money we save back into other projects benefiting the larger community and the services we provide, we think that’ll have the greatest impact. Additionally, if we can share with the school district, ultimately, we’d like to keep our tax rate lower without increasing taxes, another broad impact that we could have across the whole community. And then going back to services, we can help renters who may not be able to take advantage of that property tax impact. That’s the approach we’re taking instead of the subscription base that you might see from a third-party developer.
Cohoes is going to own and operate the floating solar site, and as a result, we’re going save $300,000 a year just in electricity and then about another $200,000 that we can either sell off or bank.
AM: You participated in the Rockefeller Institute’s Locally Sourced Capital Region Climate Policy conference, and during your presentation on the floating solar project, you mentioned reinvesting the savings in particular to finance additional green energy projects. What are some of the other projects that Cohoes wants to work on and how is the floating solar project being leveraged to achieve that?
JSG: I’ll start by speaking about a different but interrelated project, our street lighting project, because that acted as the basis for the approach we took with floating solar. We calculated that if we bought our street lighting infrastructure, and converted to LED, we’d be saving about $9 million over 20 years. So, conservatively, we said let’s take $6 million of that, let’s bond it out now while interest rates are good. This was in 2021.
As a capacity-constrained city, the issue is that we have a lot of needs. To address those needs if you go after grants, you need a city match. If you develop new services, you need something in your budget you can point to that’s going to pay for the service each year. So, we took our streetlight savings and leveraged it for grants for a variety of projects, whether it was two miles of streetscape that are being designed or constructed, a new waterfront park, upgrading parks that are currently outdated by 40 to 50 years, reinvesting in our city-owned buildings to not only restore the historic buildings but also convert them to clean energy, which we can then utilize our floating solar array to cover the electricity costs for. And to date, so far, the City has leveraged that money to bring in about $23 million in grants, with the total amount of grants that we’ve brought in a little over $36 million in the past three years.
For a city with a yearly budget of $20 million, these are historic investments and tangible things that are getting done. We have a new roof on our city hall, which had not been touched in 140 years. We have a new pocket park in our downtown. We are finishing up designs for a complete street overhaul of our main thoroughfare through the city that connects three schools, senior housing, all to low-to-moderate income LMI (low-to-moderate income) communities that currently do not have buses in the morning to bring them to and from school. We’re reinvesting in these major initiatives, but also addressing some smaller items that are less visible in terms of services.
That was the approach with our streetlights that we are now replicating with floating solar, which will save additional money that we can then reinvest yet again. While it is our intention to reinvest it into the needs of the city, this is going to be something that the city council over the next 25 years will have the opportunity to decide on how they want to utilize that money. We could certainly bond it all up front and try to foresee all our needs and make projects happen now or take it year-by-year and see what the needs of the city are and how they change and take shape over time. We’re setting up something to help future generations, but it’s going to be up to those generations to determine how that money is going to be best used.
AM: Leveraging savings from one project to reinvest in another is a great method for sustainable financing. You also mentioned the use of grants and federal and state funds. Tell us a little about how Cohoes found and secured those opportunities.
JSG: When we started this project, there were no options at the state or federal level for a municipality to get resources to develop and build a floating solar project, whether it was grants or incentives. Since then, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) included a direct pay incentive, which allows municipalities to take advantage of something that only private entities were able to take advantage of before. We were also able to access the first-in-the-nation grant for a municipally-owned solar project. This was through funding that was championed by Congressman Paul Tonko. And it was a first-in-the-nation grant not for water conservation or renewable energy adoption but for economic development. And I think it’s important to understand that everything we’ve gone after in terms of grants or incentives, we’ve framed with respect to economic development and not anything else. That’s because, to us, while the projects are critically pushing the needle forward with renewable energy and sustainability, these are economic development projects at their core.
In terms of financing, we went into this using our streetlight savings to start the initial designs and engineering. We were then able to design enough of the project to go after a grant and say this is a real tangible project, not just an idea. And we were able to then pull in money from our utility, who donated $750,000 towards the project as a model demonstration project with an educational component. At the federal level, we received first-in-the-nation funding as I just noted, and now we’re going after the newly available incentives. But the financing is definitely a unique approach here.
AM: It’s exciting to hear that it’s coming together in such an integrated and cohesive manner. Let’s expand on some of the federal and state policies that have allowed Cohoes to pursue floating solar.
JSG: One thing that we advocated for was changing which types of renewable energy projects New York State made eligible for incentives, specifically through the New York Sun program. Theresa Bourgeois, a former Cohoes employee, advocated strongly for the addition of floating solar projects under those incentives and got them included, which will help other municipalities that want to go down this route.
The IRA is also important, in terms of the amount of funding that we can access. The one thing I will say that could help municipalities more, while funding streams are opening up, one of the big drawbacks is just the flow of money at the municipal level. A lot of these programs are reimbursement-based. Considerations have to be made at the local level, do we have enough cash flow on hand to keep a project going that long before we can actually receive any funding back? You can certainly bond money, but then what about the interest rates? That can ruin a public project just as it ruins a lot of private projects. I think being able to access more money upfront from these incentives would be very beneficial to municipalities.
Getting technical assistance from a third party that’s financially uninterested can really make or break some of these projects locally.
And beyond the money, technical assistance is paramount. We were fortunate enough to get a first-in-the-nation technical assistance grant from NREL for 60 hours of unadulterated technical assistance, whatever you need. That’s so helpful. Municipalities, especially, are usually dealing with people that either have a certain prerogative, are looking to sell you something, or have some financial interest in the project. Getting technical assistance from a third party that’s financially uninterested can really make or break some of these projects locally. And then just having the incentives that are currently there, bolstered by maybe some cash flow early on, would really make these projects more reasonable for municipalities to take on.
AM: This seems like it was a very intensive but interesting process to scope out and finance the floating solar project. What were some other key things you learned, or what other additional collaborations and partnerships did you facilitate to determine project feasibility, from planning to putting a shovel in the ground?
JSG: This was kind of an out-of-the-box idea to start, so we wanted to make sure we were talking with as many people in as many different fields as possible. Whether it was making calls to developers of the products we would utilize, like Ciel & Terre in California, which designs and constructs anchoring and mooring systems for floating solar projects, or float manufacturers in Texas, to understand their process. We went to visit sites in New Jersey that had existing floating solar projects and others in development. We called people with floating solar sites in higher elevations, such as in the Alps, overseas. We made calls everywhere and anywhere we could.
We also partnered with local universities. Dr. Richard Perez is one of the first people we spoke with from the University at Albany—Dr. Perez is a renowned solar expert—just to get his understanding and ideas, particularly about any limitations he could foresee and next steps forward. We partnered with the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s IDEA Lab to visualize NREL’s data, not only to help support our project but to advocate at the federal level to change policy that would allow for further municipal adoption of floating solar.
And then, through this kind of engagement we’re doing right now, we’ve had stories written about our project that have captured the attention of people around the country. I’ve had mayors from Ohio come here. We’ve had the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), representatives from Puerto Rico and New York, we’ve had Canadian delegations, and we’ve had delegates from the UK. I think the rewarding part is just that students from around the country at different universities have reached out, wanting to learn more. There are collaborations that we’ve done that have helped move our project forward. And then collaborations we’ve been fortunate enough to do to help move the technology and the adoption forward. I have an email chain of all these people who have reached out to give them updates every now and then. And that chain is growing and growing as time goes on. It’s really rewarding to get technical assistance and just as rewarding to give it. Since this is a unique, innovative approach, there aren’t other existing models in the United States.
AM: It’s been a long chain of investigation, collaboration, and partnership. What in your mind would it take to simplify this process so that it can be easily replicable throughout municipalities across the US?
JSG: In addition to the resources and incentives I already noted, and ensuring they are available to municipalities, I also think having a regional approach would be helpful. It was a tremendous amount of effort, and still is, for our small City staff, which is capacity-constrained. I think regional entities that are taking this on and going after bigger grants, bigger incentives, whether it’s from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), or what have you, and looking at multiple sites at once, could definitely make it more palatable for municipalities to take this work on. It would relieve them of dedicating 30 hours a week to a project like this. Localities have to work on roads and sidewalks, fixing your lights, and assisting homeowners who can’t afford to fix their roofs in the winter. There are needs at the local level that can’t be overlooked. And those can’t be forgone just so you can work on new projects, however much sense they may make. So, I think a regional approach and then obviously more money becoming available is always going to help.
AM: Thanks for sharing with us some of the particulars for planning Cohoes’ floating solar project and outlining some of the policy considerations and funding opportunities that can help municipalities pursue similar projects. Any last words that you want folks to know about floating solar or resources they can access for more information?
JSG: Certainly. Go to the City of Cohoes website to learn more about the project, as well as reach out to myself if there are any questions. I want to stress this is not just me working in a silo on this. This is a team effort. Our city engineer has been working in the city on and off for 50 years. His knowledge is paramount for developing something like this. Theresa Bourgeois has worked tirelessly on the funding avenues. It was definitely a team effort.
And I think this type of project is going to be something that becomes more affordable in New York State. We’re the first ones to build in New York. We’re hiring a local construction company to build it. Now they’re going to have that expertise to share with other municipalities. Building a pipeline of panels in New York State is needed. Regardless if it’s on land or water.
Finally, I would stress, don’t get turned off from exploring a floating solar project just because of any preconceived notions about the technology or the application. Do your research and read into it. The more research you do, many of those questions or concerns will likely go to the wayside. By siting the technology in the way we are, where the solar is not on a natural water body, but a human-made water body, we control the levels of the water—that’s a great approach, but it might not work on a water body that’s recreationally used or a water body that has protected species. So, I just want to caution that it won’t make sense everywhere the way it does in Cohoes. It’s not an end-all be-all, but that’s why research is so important. And once you do that research, you might come to the conclusion that it could be the right fit for your town, your municipality, or your water body.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alexander Morse was associate director of public policy and government strategy at the Rockefeller Institute of Government and is now regulatory affairs specialist at New York Independent System Operator.