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Community solar may be the solution to help New York go green

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New regulations may be “turning point” for getting renewables on NYC rooftops

In this Feb. 14, 2017 photo, a rooftop is covered with solar panels at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York.

In the Parkchester neighborhood of the Bronx, on the rooftop of a self-storage center on Zerega Avenue, a sea change in how the city and state promote renewable power is in full swing.

One of the city’s first community solar projects, the Altus Bronx Community Solar Farm, showcases a new—and, advocates say, fast-growing—segment of the solar industry.

Power generation is centralized on the rooftop of this self-storage company, which gets paid for hosting the panels. But 150 New Yorkers who subscribe to the program benefit from the power generated here—all without upfront costs or equipment installation—and see a 5 to 10 percent discount on their electricity bills.

New York City isn’t a newbie when it comes to solar. The Javits Center just announced it’s adding the city’s largest rooftop solar installation; the MTA is placing solar panels on the tops of train yards and bus depots; and other modest solar projects, like the Brooklyn Microgrid in Park Slope, have attempted to bolster renewables at a smaller scale.

But unlocking a chance for everyday New Yorkers to support renewable power without owning a building could be a game changer. Currently, 17 such projects are operating in the city, with 27 additional community solar installations in the pipeline, according to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

”We view this as a prototype sustainable energy project for urban areas,” says Tom Athan, president of Altus Power America, who has four other similar projects spread across the city. “This rooftop solar project is exactly the type that the State of New York has encouraged for the five boroughs.”

While stories of solar power’s potential often conjure up rows of glittering panels in a southwestern desert, don’t discount New York rooftops. If every available building was outfitted with solar panels, the city could produce enough clean electricity to power 1.2 million homes, according to an analysis by Mapdwell. So far, New York has only reached 2 percent of its capacity. But changes in the cost of solar panels and equipment, and new rules and regulations unlocking the power of community solar, may change that rapidly.

“Community solar is essentially a brand-new industry,” says Kate Colarulli of Clean Choice Energy, a company that develops community solar projects in five states and Washington, D.C. “This is going to be a game changer for New York City to access solar. You’re seeing new projects announced constantly.”

How solar fits into the city, and state, sustainability push

This improved outlook for community solar comes as recent passage of the city’s own “Green New Deal” gave environmentalists a big win. New York City proposed one of the most aggressive commitments to energy-efficient buildings, while the state announced plans to transition to clean energy. By 2040, all the state’s power will be 100 percent clean and carbon-free, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Currently, the state generates just 1.4 percent of its energy from solar power.

Cuomo’s adoption of these goals will change the paradigm on renewables in New York, says Anne Reynolds, executive director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York.

“That commitment is the new framework,” she says. “If solar blossoms in Brooklyn, great. If it doesn’t, then we’ll point to those goals and say, ‘what do we change and tweak to get there?’”

It may be assumed that urban centers will miss out on the boom in renewable energy generation due to space constraints. While there’s a lack of open land, there’s no shortage of flat, elevated rooftops to place solar panels. A number of energy companies, including Dynamic Energy, Cyprus Creek Renewables, and CleanChoice, have dozens of active and in-the-works community solar projects across the state, and increasingly, in the city. Statewide, active community solar projects currently generate 70 megawatts of electricity annually, enough to supply power to roughly 7,700 customers, and there are 867 megawatts of projects in development.

Bill Jordan of Jordan Energy, a developer currently working on a 25-acre community solar project outside of Troy, New York, says there will be an acceleration of projects across the state, including within New York City.

“I think the turning point is upon us,” he says.

Solar panels that are part of the Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association’s community gardens are shown in Rockford, Minn. Community solar gardens are a new concept in renewable energy, allowing customers who cannot put up solar panels to buy into the green energy boom anyway.

Regulations finally evolved to a point where progress was possible

The idea of these kind of co-op-esque, DIY solar installations first took off in Minnesota. Turns out group purchasing power, which helps big-city renters take advantage of solar without owning a rooftop, also allows rural farmers in remote areas to band together to produce their own electricity. Since launching in 2014, the Minnesota program now produces 532 megawatts of energy, enough to power roughly 53,200 homes.

Community solar can be a particularly good fit for big cities, which are hyper-dense areas with lots of potential customers. For consumers, it solves the moving problem: renters constantly relocating throughout the city can’t exactly disassemble solar panels and truck them to their next two-bedroom walk-up. Sign up for a community solar program, and you can benefit as long as you stay within the utility’s service area. For building owners, community solar offers some of the same benefits as adding cellular towers—it’s a long-term, revenue-generating asset. For small business owners, it lets them plug into cheaper power bills.

It’s also tailor-made to bring equity in access to renewables. A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that, since single-family homeownership—literally having a roof over your head to install solar panels upon—is correlated with higher incomes, unlocking the potential of apartment and multifamily buildings is essential to getting many Americans plugged in to solar. The NREL estimates 60 percent of the generating potential for low- to moderate-income Americans resides in such structures, which is coincidentally where a vast majority of lower-income New Yorkers reside.

A community solar installation on top of the Octagon Apartments on Roosevelt Island.

Community solar became a reality in New York in 2015 thanks to new state legislation and regulations, but took longer to take hold because of a cocktail of red tape, regulatory agencies, and invested stakeholders. Since the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority first set the guidelines for community solar in 2015, placing relatively restrictive rules on the practice, Reynolds says the rules have been changing non-stop.

“Complicated rules slowed down the market,” she says. “It’s been stop and start as everything has evolved. Now, we’re finally getting it right.”

Over time, more politicians have pushed for increased solar generation. A policy strategy from Cuomo, “Reforming the Energy Vision” (REV), helped pave the way for recent investment and activity in community solar statewide. In 2015, the Community Distributed Generation Initiative allowed more New Yorkers to participate in the solar market. New city and state policies provided incentives to install solar panels.

On April 19, a number of regulatory shifts by the state’s Public Service Commission made community solar more economically feasible. Installation could be larger—up to 5 megawatts. Small businesses can now take advantage of market transition credits, the discounts on electric bills provided to subscribers of such projects. Previously, when only residential customers could take advantage, a project needed to get hundreds of subscribers. Now, they can get off the ground with a handful of small businesses.

The rule changes also benefited developers by increasing incentives. According to Jordan, the combination of a falling cost for solar equipment and a better deal with the state utility means more projects are economically feasible.

“Most of us in the industry are concerned about the environment, that’s why we’re here,” he says. “But at the end of the day, we’re still looking at the bottom line.”

Community solar taking root in other cities

While it’s just a few years old, community solar is gaining ground across the country. In Altamont, upstate in Albany county, the Capital Region Community Solar Garden, which generates enough electricity to power 800 homes annually, was just completed. Last November, CleanChoice announced plans to develop 1.825 megawatts of community solar capacity in Washington, D.C., part of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s pledge to provide locally generated solar to 100,000 residents.

“Community solar opens up the benefits of solar to all residents—including lower energy bills and cleaner air—while creating jobs and renewable energy investment in all eight wards of the District,” says the District’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) Director Tommy Wells.

In addition, combined with the state’s push to develop energy storage capacity, new community solar can provide an economic benefit by leveraging private capital, creating jobs, and lowering rates, according to David Sandbank, Director of Distributed Energy Resources at NYSERDA, all while creating a smarter, more resilient grid.

“It’s imperative people understand we’re incentivizing developers to add solar in strategic places,” says Sandbank. “We’re doing this in a smart way.”

A community solar project in Washington, D.c.
CleanChoice Energy

Currently, community solar exists in Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York, Washington DC, Maryland, and Colorado. It’s now possible in New Jersey and Illinois, after recent legislation, and both Pennsylvania and Oregon are currently debating similar measures.

According to Reynolds, New York will need to be very aggressive with offshore wind and utility-scale solar projects to meet the ambitious emissions targets set for the next few decades. There are also plenty of challenges: older buildings may not be able to support the weight of solar installations and will need to be retrofitted, and there’s lots of hoops to jump through to get a solar installation hooked up via ConEd.

But community solar will undoubtedly be part of the solution.

“New York is sunnier than people may think,” Reynolds says. “It’s not Florida or Arizona, but the Cuomo administration has been doing a good job trying to develop the industry. Take the climate, and the enthusiasm, and we’re doing a good job while beating out some sunnier places.”