A Solar Movement Grows in New York City

Source: By Brian Eckhouse, Bloomberg • Posted: Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Big Apple is less than ideal for solar, but that hasn’t stopped it’s slow, steady growth.

New York, a city of soaring towers and ever-changing shadows, has designs on something that requires open skies: solar power.

But building solar isn’t easy in the Big Apple. The constantly evolving nature of the city itself is a sticking point, said Peter Davidson, a Brooklyn-based solar developer and a former head of the U.S. Energy Department’s loan programs office. Roof topography, strict fire codes, zoning and setback rules all need to be considered. There just isn’t as much space as in the desert, or even suburbia.

“It’s a wild forest of problems to navigate here,” said T.R. Ludwig, chief executive officer of installer Brooklyn SolarWorks.

View of the Smith & 9th Street train stop from the roof of Brooklyn SolarWorks which features a canopy array in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Photographer: Adrienne Grunwald for Bloomberg

And yet, New York’s desire to add solar has never been stronger. It’s clean and getting cheaper—facts not lost on many residents. “People here are animated about climate change,” said Marc Kaminsky, a Brooklyn resident who recently added solar to his roof.

Panels are being installed atop brownstones, warehouses, affordable housing and post-war high-rises. There’s 154 megawatts of installed solar city-wide today, spanning about 15,000 projects, according to Ellie Kahn, a policy adviser in the NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. The city is targeting 1,000 megawatts of solar by 2030. So far, most of the city’s solar projects have been outside Manhattan, the land of skyscrapers.

“The tall-and-skinny doesn’t work really well. It’s expensive. There just isn’t a lot of footprint to put solar on,’’ said David Sandbank, director of NY-Sun at the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority. “But it pays off very nicely on wider buildings in Staten Island or Queens or Brooklyn.”

Head of Installation, Sam Breslaw, reviews some older panels on the roof of Brooklyn SolarWorks Photographer: Adrienne Grunwald for Bloomberg

But solar is still popping up in Manhattan. Blackstone Group LP is installing one of the city’s biggest solar projects—3.8 megawatts at Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village on Manhattan’s east side. Panels are being installed atop the 22 acres of rooftops on the complex’s high-rises, and will cover 6 percent of the community’s total consumption. The investment firm expects construction to be complete in early 2019.

After Blackstone became an owner in 2015, it learned through focus groups that sustainability was a priority for residents. The project has since proved to be an urban-solar testing ground for Blackstone and others. The firm is now considering adding solar to other properties, said Melissa Pianko, a managing director in its real estate group.

Across the river in Brooklyn, Davidson’s Gotham Community Solar is weeks away from bringing a 105-kilowatt project in Gowanus online. It will serve 40 customers across the city.

Used cells on the roof of Brooklyn SolarWorks. Photographer: Adrienne Grunwald for Bloomberg

Before Ludwig created Brooklyn SolarWorks, he and friends commuted to rural areas of New Jersey and upstate New York from the borough to work in the industry. “We wondered: ‘why can’t we do it here?’’’ Ludwig said.

There were many reasons. Brownstones tend to be flat-roofed, and are thus subject to stringent zoning and fire codes. The restrictions required panels be set back several feet from the edge of a roof, cutting down on the available space.

So, Brooklyn SolarWorks helped design a canopy. By lifting the panels above the roof itself, the company added potential solar surface area. There’s also an aesthetic component: the canopy doubles as a shaded deck for barbecues and pingpongtournaments.

A canopy atop the roof of Brooklyn SolarWorks.Photographer: Adrienne Grunwald for Bloomberg

The company once lined up more than a dozen installations on a single block in Brooklyn after residents there noticed a crane hoisting up a canopy. Neighbors banded together over a series of four meetings, asked three companies to make presentations, and then chose Brooklyn SolarWorks, Kaminsky said. Overall, the company has installed almost 2 megawatts of projects, principally in 15 zip codes in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan.

“It’s a made-in-New York model,’’ said Chris Neidl, Brooklyn SolarWorks’s director of business development. “Cookie-cutter, vanilla, standalone doesn’t really work here.’’