Sunny Side (Way) Up: The New Yorkification of Solar

When you look at the utility-scale solar farms spreading across the country and the prevalence of solar roofs in the suburbs, the path of solar in New York City appears a bit sluggish. And why shouldn’t it be? Solar faces the same laundry list of challenges that hinder many green initiatives here: not enough space, too many rules, too expensive. Mix in the complexity of decision-making in multifamily buildings, and you’ve got a veritable Everest to scale before you can install any panels.

On October 18th, three heroic climbers who successfully implement solar projects in NYC discussed their creative solutions for advancing solar energy in this unruly urban landscape, or The New Yorkification of Solar.

CUSTOMIZING SOLAR

Chris Neidl of Brooklyn Solarworks kicked off the conversation by presenting an image of a common PV installation on a suburban house and asserting, “We shouldn’t be fooled to think that this IS solar.” Solar is a more adaptive technology than one might expect: With modular panels and no moving parts, a PV system is relatively easy to tailor to different architectural situations and, once installed, requires minimal oversight.

One of the unique challenges in NYC is that various obstructions sprout out of city roofs, defying a standardized design for solar installation. But, while no two roofs look the same on the surface, their general size and shape is much more consistent. Brooklyn Solarworks builds solar “canopies” that can be installed throughout the city. These elevated PV arrays rise above obstructions like hatches and skylights and clear fire code areas that typically inhibit roof renovations.

Henry Misas of Bright Power mentioned Urban Green’s work on Zone Green, a critical policy which raised the height at which solar panels could be built on certain roofs, among other zoning changes. This opened up the possibility of installing solar canopies on a huge range of row houses, the bread and butter of NYC housing stock. Without that change, he said, NYC would probably have only 10 percent of the solar installations it has today.

MAKE LEMONADE

Misas adopts a self-proclaimed “make lemonade” attitude when working on solar projects in NYC. For a project in the Bronx where the owner insisted on installing vertical panels down the side of the building, a position that would not maximize energy capture, Bright Power installed tilted brackets and ballasts to improve the angle.

He shared several case studies of successful large-scale installations on the roofs of dorms, affordable housing complexes and luxury condos. He called these buildings “energy-pots,” likening them to potential energy goldmines because of their size, and upgraded their PV arrays from “solar canopy” to “solar pagoda.”

The next frontier for Misas is to push the city toward combining solar with battery storage. This is crucial so that if the gas or power goes off in a building during an emergency like Hurricane Sandy, solar panels could charge batteries to keep the lights on after the sun goes down.

TOO EXPENSIVE? NOT A HOMEOWNER? YOU’VE STILL GOT OPTIONS

To address the financial and administrative challenges of solar adoption, Noah Ginsberg described Here Comes Solar (HCS)’s technical assistance model. HCS connects individual homeowners, helping them form neighborhood groups and gain collective bargaining power in negotiating with solar companies. These arrangements create savings and convenience for both homeowners and contractors, who benefit from securing multiple projects in the same neighborhood.

Similarly, all three speakers spoke to the promise of community solar. In New York State, residents who can’t install their own solar panels can lease or purchase a portion of another building’s array and receive credits on their utility bill for the energy produced. These shared projects allow anyone, whether they are tenants, homeowners or landlords, to buy into the benefits of solar.

UPDATING (AND REFINING) POLICY

At the end of the night, the speakers were asked to play “Mayor for a Day.” What would these solar energy experts do to further the renewable energy revolution?

Neidl and Misas agreed that the city’s approach is too big-picture; they advocated for updating out-of-date policies and refining guidelines to make benchmarks like 80x50 more attainable. Ginsberg said he would redesign the tax incentives for solar, which are currently only for people who pay property taxes and exclude folks in low-income housing from benefitting, for example.

As Urban Green Council members know all too well, the energy used in NYC buildings is responsible for nearly three-quarters of our emissions. While the obstacles to change can be intimidating, this discussion shed light on the immense opportunity for solar in NYC and showed that transformation is actually happening, even if it’s not always visible from the ground. As Neidl put it, “The barriers are outmatched only by the demand.”

About the author

Emily Pontecorvo
Emily Pontecorvo is a freelance science writer and multimedia producer based in Brooklyn.