Solar and the city: Creative solutions can grow solar in NYC

BSW’s canopy installation on the Crown Heights co-op.

Three former Sunrun colleagues were sick of commuting from their homes in Brooklyn to work on solar projects in faraway New York and New Jersey suburbs. They wondered what it would take to add solar to their neighborhood.

“We kind of said to ourselves, ‘Why are we driving an hour and some change to go put solar on a pitched roof when we’re driving past these large swaths of flat-roof buildings that basically had no solar here in Brooklyn and Queens and really all the boroughs?'” said TR Ludwig, who’s now CEO of Brooklyn SolarWorks (BSW).

So Ludwig and his coworkers Gaelen McKee and Mark Cunningham started exploring the dearth of flat-roof residential solar in their city.

“There’s just kind of this stigma, at least for residential, that flat roofs are more difficult and you have problems with leaks and all that kind of stuff,” Ludwig said. After some investigating, they found that one legitimate barrier to flat-roof residential solar is the fire code in New York City.

Ludwig said on a typical brownstone, the fire codes and clear path requirements would reduce the total solar capacity of a flat roof by half or even 75%. Other obstructions like skylights and hatches can further reduce capacity.

“We discovered that the way to get around those fire codes was to go above them,” he said, suggesting the use of solar canopies.

Ludwig, McKee and Cunningham knew their prior employer Sunrun wasn’t interested in flat-roof solar, so they quit their jobs to create their own company to capitalize on this untapped market.

They teamed with Chris Neidl, who was previously working at SolarONE, a nonprofit that helps set up solar group buys, and worked with interior design architecture firm Situ Studio to develop a modular solar canopy that would work with flat-roof dimensions between 15 and 22 ft and raise the panels the required 9 ft in the air. The 9-ft code requirement leaves space for a 6-ft firefighter to swing an axe on the roof.

“Apparently, they need to get it to 9-ft and you know, who’s going to argue with that,” Ludwig said.

What began as a sales-only outfit blossomed into an installation company after the team couldn’t find reliable subcontractors in the area to put up the canopies. BSW sold its first solar canopy in December of 2015.

A BSCC canopy installation by Venture Solar. Credit: Venture Solar

“Once we saw our finished product up on a roof, we realized that we really, really had something that was going to be very much a game-changer here in New York City,” Ludwig said.

After seeing the demand, BSW started a sister company, Brooklyn Solar Canopy Company (BSCC), to sell its canopies to other contractors.

Venture Solar, a SunPower installer headquartered in Brooklyn, is one company that buys canopies from BSCC. The company mostly installs solar on pitched-roof homes in the city, but sometimes installs the canopies on flat roofs. Co-founder Alex Giles said the company avoids projects in historical districts or those with special zoning that will create issues with permitting. Venture Solar typically installs canopies on flat roofs in order to allow for a larger sized system than if it installed a standard tilted array.

“NYC actually has very easy and straightforward rules for permitting on pitched rooftops,” he said. “They have a standardized application for a permit for all boroughs, and the majority of jobs we are able to receive a permit in a few days from application.”

Unique canopy applications

BSW has used a lot of flexibility and creativity to bring its canopy projects to Brooklyn residents.

Neidl said the company’s solar canopy solution is a great compromise for residents who want to go solar but don’t want to lose valuable roof space for a deck or other outdoor living area.

“They don’t have to make a decision now between solar or that,” he said. “They can now do both, and, in fact, the solar canopy actually improves what other utilization they want to have up there because it creates not only space but shade.”

In one project, BSW was able to use virtual net metering to add solar canopies to a cooperative building in Crown Heights that would benefit all of its co-op shareholders. They distributed the credits from one meter to all eight residencies, giving them 100% offset.

“That’s a model that is totally made in New York and very scalable because most New Yorkers and most Brooklynites live in five- to 10-unit multi-family buildings whether they’re renters, condo owners or cooperative shareholders,” Neidl said.

All the tenants in the building opted in to the community solar, and the co-op owns the system as an entity. When shareholders leave, their solar shares can be easily transferred to new shareholders.

“Cooperatives already by their very nature collectively own an asset and have systems for paying for that, up-keeping that and transferring it to new folks,” Neidl said. “We’re utilizing all of that existing structure for the solar.”

BSW’s Park Slope project where neighbors organized a group purchasing program to add solar in bulk.

Another swath of projects for BSW came about via a civically minded solar homeowner living in a brownstone on a block in Park Slope. He had a solar canopy installed on his roof previously, and was so passionate about it he then encouraged his neighbors to go solar too. With his leadership, the group orchestrated their own neighborhood group purchase without help from a formal organization.

“Flat-roof Brooklyn–highly bureaucratic, permit-challenging Brooklyn–is sort of resistant to your ‘vanilla’ Solarize-type of model because it requires a lot more work on the part of the installer to ultimately confirm a customer,” Neidl said.

The group was already educated about the basics of solar and what it might cost, so it chose an installer, then gave other neighbors a couple months to sign up. Fifteen of the neighbors opted in. BSW has already installed rooftop solar canopies on eight of the homes and will complete the rest, which are non-canopy installations, during the summer.

BSW was able to offer the group solar installations at a lower rate because of lower bulk equipment and customer acquisition costs, and the fact that the homes are a five-minute walk from BSW’s front door, the team’s dream of installing solar in their own neighborhood was realized.

The community solar option

For New Yorkers who don’t have the roof space or the cash for a home solar installation, community solar is a new and flexible choice.

Community solar is still a nascent solar sector, said Kate Colarulli, VP of retention marketing and PR at community solar supplier CleanChoice Energy. But she said the solution could be transformative for New York City, a place with very high solar potential but a unique housing market.

“But nobody owns their own roof, or if they own their own roof, they happen to be in a brownstone, but they’re being overshadowed by some big skyscraper that’s down the block,” Colarulli said.

CleanChoice set out to find rooftops in the city that are suitable for community solar.

“One of the cool things about community solar is it’s kind of a win-win,” Colarulli said. “Not only does it open up solar for New York residents, but it also provides an additional form of revenue for building owners. “

A group of Million Solar Strong advocates poses with the solar system at The Meekerman, an affordable housing development in Brooklyn.

She doesn’t think CleanChoice will have a problem with solar siting in the city since building owners stand to make additional revenue with the arrangement.

So far, CleanChoice has co-developed one community solar array in New York City along with Gotham Community Solar and UGE, and the group has two more projects in the pipeline this year in Brooklyn and Queens.

Anyone from the five boroughs was able to buy in to the 100-kW Carroll Street Community Solar Farm in Brooklyn by signing a three-year contract with rights to renew after that period. Subscriber enrollment filled up in June.

This unique arrangement makes a lot of sense for the often-transient residents of New York City. If a community solar subscriber moves to a different apartment or brownstone in the city during an active subscription contract, the solar seamlessly moves with them.

Colarulli said another benefit of community solar over individual solar purchases is the simple buy-in process. It’s a matter of filling out an online form as opposed to spending time choosing a contractor, financing the project, setting construction dates and more.

“For a huge swath of Americans, community solar has the potential to be that thing that gets over the obvious hurdles and burdens and the reasons why they and their family have not chosen yet to put solar up,” she said.

Community solar allows subscribers to lock in energy rates so they aren’t impacted if utility rates fluctuate. They get bill credit in the form of net metering or the VDER tariff, said Brandon Smithwood, policy director at the nonprofit Coalition for Community Solar Access.

“I’m excited to hear there’s some new on-roof solutions, but a lot of those roofs are going to have tenancy issues, you’re going to have structural issues, they’re going to be too tall, have too much HVAC equipment,” he said. “I would conjecture that community solar is going to be the primary way that people get access to solar in the city.”

Colarulli also puts a lot of hope in community solar, but she said she understands the right solar choice varies with each person.

“I can’t say definitively writ large that it’s always going to be the right choice. There’s a lot of different options to go solar out there and some people just want to own. Some people want to lease cars and some people want to own cars,” she said.

Putting pieces together for solar success

BSW’s Park Slope project where neighbors organized a group purchasing program to add solar in bulk.

Sean Garren, senior director of the Northeast for Vote Solar, is on a mission to bring solar to one million New Yorkers through the Million Solar Strong initiative. That goal won’t be accomplished by community solar or solar canopies alone.

Though community solar is a great option to increase solar access in New York City, it’s hindered by the electric commissions boundaries. Current rules do not allow for interzonal bill crediting for community solar projects–meaning New York City residents living in the five boroughs can only subscribe to projects built within city limits.

“When you’re talking about the scale of New York City and the number of people who need to be served, there’s almost no way that you could actually serve everybody or even a really large portion of folks in New York City within the bounds of New York City. There’s just a land constraint,” Garren said.

The commission will soon be ruling on whether to allow interzonal crediting and is also considering additional incentives to overcome the higher cost of developing solar in the city, said Smithwood.

Garren is hopeful about community solar taking off in the city, and he credits the municipal government for working to connect dots to increase solar access. The City University of New York (CUNY) launched the website nysolarmap.com to help New York residents view the solar potential of their rooftops, launch Solarize campaigns, link potential subscribers with community solar projects and more.

“They’re really working to line up all the different resources and make the connections on the ground that need to happen to ease development of solar in the state or in the city,” Garren said.

He said the way to one million solar homes is making going solar as easy as possible for residents, no matter the solar solution.

“New York City is a challenging place to build or go solar for all the reasons we discussed, with land constraint and labor costs and others, and the work that’s being done has helped a lot in removing or addressing some of these barriers,” Garren said. “But it is going to need to continue to be a priority for the city and the state if they want to offer the same opportunities for people in New York City that are available to folks everywhere else in the state.”

There’s no one right answer for stoking widespread growth of solar in New York City. The solution will be a combination of individual installers continually innovating, community solar growing more viable and residents electing officials who will continue to prioritize solar in the most populous city in the United States.

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