During the summer, the electric meters in co-ops and condos around the city accelerated to warp speed. But for a few buildings around town, this will be the last summer those dials will give boards and residents whiplash. That’s because those buildings are planning to install solar power systems that generate the most electricity when the summer sun shines at its most ferocious.
There are four main reasons why many properties are planning photovoltaic (PV) installations, and why most other properties should consider such projects: government incentives for planning and installation, immediate reduction in power use, the possibility of selling unused power to the utility, and the increased value of the property.
More than 800 buildings in the city have installed or are putting in PV systems, according to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. An exact count is not available, but the users include, “numerous residences and multi-family dwellings,” according to the authority.
PV systems are relatively simple, with solar panels mounted on the roof or outside walls, an inverter to change solar direct current to household alternating current, and wiring to connect to the building’s system. The smallest and most simple systems can be in place for as little as $50,000. That’s certainly not pocket change, but compared to other capital projects, it’s not a bad point of departure. Most installers will also develop a comprehensive power-reduction plan as well, so demand can drop even before the system comes on line.
Beyond reducing a building’s electrical use, some PV systems are eligible for federal, state, and local rebates on the cost of installation. “There is a big promotion with the Department of Energy – there is some federal money funneled through the state,” says Charles A. Cerussi, CEO of American Photovoltaics & Homes. “The owner gets 50 percent of the cost of the feasibility study, and up to 60 percent for the project, up to $1 million.”
Cerussi adds that PV can enhance the marketability of a building. “It can make the co-op or condo worth a hell of a lot more money. If you have stand-alone power and heat, no matter what, you can stay on line. That’s huge – especially with the blackout last summer.”
Some systems are also eligible for “net metering.” Under current law, power companies buy surplus electricity from PV systems. In some cases it is actually possible for a building’s electrical meter to spin backwards. At present, only systems of 10 kilowatts or less can use net metering, although there are bills in Albany to raise that limit.
Most co-ops and condos considering PV get bids from at least two contractors from a state-approved list. If the project is approved, the contractors handle all the paperwork for rebates or incentives. The simplest systems will cost about $8/watt, installed, says William Feldmann, manager of clean energy for Empire Electric.
“Ideally you want to power all the common areas, but a PV installation does not necessarily meet all the demand in a building,” says Feldmann, who stresses that when boards are calculating the payback for a PV system, they should include the total cost of power, not just the meter rate. “Taxes, fees, and surcharges are a rising percentage of the total bill. So when you lower the base charge, you are also reducing the additional charges. That can make a big difference in the length of the payback.”
In general, PV systems cost $8/watt to $10/watt installed, says Tom Thompson, vice president of sustainable energy for First Rochdale Cooperative Group based in Manhattan. He cites 15 cents/kilowatt hour, as the full cost of power in New York City, including taxes and surcharges. First Rochdale plans to install 1,000 PV systems of at least 10 kilowatts on co-op rooftops throughout the city in the next ten years. About a year ago, First Rochdale formed a partnership with a firm called Homeland Energy to offer integrated power and light systems, including PV.
A full project can take as little as four to six months, says David Buckner, president of Solar Energy Systems. “The problem some boards have is the long payback time. But compared to buying power, which has no payback, what are ten or fifteen years? PV is also valuable to prospective residents. With an average turnover of five or six years, you can re-sell the value of the system several times over, even pro-rated.”
Ansonia Court, a co-op in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, has 70 units and most residents like the idea of becoming a green building with PV. “We have received one bid from one vendor, and we are trying to get another competitive bid,” says Geraldo DaSilva, a systems analyst for New York Presbyterian Hospital and vice president of the board at Ansonia Court. “Right now the [PV] industry is at a point where it needs a few pioneers to establish the market.”
As the board seeks a second bid, it is also hoping to get more local support. “Given the newness of the industry, we have not been approached creatively with any financing,” says DaSilva. The board hopes a vendor can offer financing, and also that borough government or other interested parties will offer some incentives in addition to the existing state and federal programs.
Another co-op in Manhattan has a direct line to a model project in Massachusetts. “I have a friend in western Massachusetts whose building is off the [electrical power] grid ten months a year,” says Steven Knoblauch, a psychology professor at New York University and a member of the board at 30 West 13th Street. “And Massachusetts is pretty far from the Equator. That is pretty promising.”
There is also a lot of roof space at 30 West 13th Street, but the board is juggling many factors in the decision on PV. It is an old building, with laws covering maintenance. Knoblauch says the cost and energy savings of PV are compelling, but the board is leery of the installed price of a solar-powered system “even given the tax advantages and rebates. And with the size of the building, we can’t go with the whole system off the grid. It would only be a partial replacement” for power from the utility company. “We want to do it,” says Knoblauch, but we are constricted by other opportunities.”
In Brooklyn, a five-unit rental building in Crown Heights dating to the 1840s has had a PV system on line since November of last year. The seven-kilowatt system cost owners Susan Boyle and Benton Brown only $48,000, but will have a long 30-year payback, she says. Boyle is unfazed by the return on investment because she anticipates rate increases.
“Everything went smoothly through the feasibility study and installation,” says Boyle. “The planning and contracting took a total of a year. Of that, the actual installation took three months, but that included a new roof. And Con Ed was very receptive and quick about getting back to us. Of all the green technologies and practices we have used, this was the easiest.” She emphasizes, however, that education is essential and suggests that the property manager at any building considering PV take some of the courses offered around the metro area. Many are subsidized.
In the near future, PV will be built in, predicts Gregory Kiss, a principal with Kiss + Cathcart Architects. “We have been doing PV for 20 years, that’s hundreds of projects. When it becomes apparent to everyone that you can do PV at little or no premium over conventional materials, PV will be mainstream in a minimum of five years. For retrofits, it is possible to install PV glass when reglazing or recladding a building. It can be done almost as economically as if it had been done in the first place.”