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A year ago this month, New York City released an interactive map showing every solar power installation in the city. It’s not a robust picture. There are fewer than 500 solar installations citywide.
NYCSolarMap.com could change that. By providing property owners with detailed information about tax incentives, solar potential, and the payback period for an individual rooftop, NYCSolarMap could, if you’ll pardon the pun, lead to sunny skies for solar. In all, two-thirds of the city’s roofs could harness enough of the sun’s energy to make it worth the investment.
The City University of New York (CUNY) is leading local solar efforts and developed the map in partnership with the city and the federal Department of Energy. The site has had about 200,000 hits since it launched and gets about 60 visitors a day. “You’re always going to get the early adopters. However, to trigger mainstream adoption you need to make the case for solar by using data,” says Tria Case, director of sustainability for CUNY and the map’s lead developer. The map cost $660,000 to build and gives users the tools to make an informed decision about their own property. The map, created from photographs taken by airplane using a laser system called Lidar, also tracks solar thermal projects and eventually could become an energy map for the entire city.
But there are barriers to installing solar. The city permitting process can be cumbersome. And not all buildings are good candidates. A property must have a large roof that’s in good condition. Above all, it needs ample sun. A building with too much shade will not get enough sunlight to generate energy. For that reason, buildings in boroughs other than Manhattan tend to be better candidates.
Then there are the financials. If a building is structured as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, it won’t benefit from some of the tax incentives. And since most of the financial incentives come in the form of a rebate, a building’s owners need to either have enough cash to pay for the project up front or be able to qualify for a loan.
“It’s really just about the budget and the goals and if it makes good financial sense to do it,” says Christopher Moustakis, a partner at Solar Energy Systems, which installed the solar panels at the River Arts cooperative in Washington Heights. The 14,000 square feet of paneling, installed on its rooftop two years ago, saves the shareholders $15,000 a year.
“It’s kind of embarrassing how much we save,” notes Jack Fogle, the building manager and a River Arts resident since 1981. In 2010, the co-op replaced all the light fixtures in the common areas, shaving another $18,700 a year off its energy costs.
The view of the Hudson River is remarkable from the roof of River Arts. So are the solar panels.
The shiny black fixtures blanket a third of the roof and are set at an angle to capture more of the sun (see photos at right). From their base, thin pipes snake across the rooftop, connecting to inverters, which change the energy from DC to AC power. Now ready to join the public grid, the energy travels down thick pipes to a Con Edison meter below.
River Arts is not your ordinary Manhattan building. The 73-year-old complex has a large footprint, with a pair of buildings spanning two city blocks. Its lobby opens out onto a 24,000-square-foot glen with wild undergrowth and arching trees that separate it from its neighbors. Its isolated location and two wide rooftops make it an ideal candidate for solar.
The co-op board installed the panels on one of the rooftops in the summer of 2010. It plans to eventually build a deck atop the other roof, a move that could increase property values. The energy powers the building’s common areas. The combined lighting and solar projects reduced the building’s operating expenses by two percent.
The project cost $418,000 at the outset. River Arts financed it with a federal tax credit, a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), and a city property tax abatement. In all, the credits and grants reduced their final bill to $34,560. “We hit a real sweet spot,” says Fogle of the incentives. “The numbers started to work for us.”
Although incentives still exist, they have changed since River Arts qualified. The city property tax abatement, which helps offset the higher cost of doing business in New York, is set to expire at the end of the year.
“That city credit was a significant benefit,” says Moustakis of Solar Energy Systems. River Arts took out a loan to pay the $244,000 it owed after the NYSERDA rebate and before it received the tax credits. Initially, the board estimated it would take eight to ten years to pay back the investment. Instead, it took only three.
Nevertheless, River Arts’ costs have gone up by 15 percent because of rising property taxes and skyrocketing fuel costs. Property taxes cost the complex $1 million in 2012, up from $300,000 in 2005. In 2015, when the city phases out No. 6 oil, the co-op will have to use a cleaner, but costlier, fuel.
The co-op has taken many steps to lower costs. When it replaced the lighting in the communal areas with energy-efficient fixtures, it took advantage of a $15,000 NYSERDA grant that brought the price down from $51,000 to $36,000. It took the co-op two years to pay.
The co-op also submetered its two central Con Edison meters in 2003. Until then, utilities were bundled into the general maintenance charges. After submetering, residents were responsible for their own utility bill but could still benefit from the wholesale master meter rate. The effort had a secondary effect, lowering consumption by 20 percent once residents actually saw how much they spent. “If I never saw the bill, what did I care?” says Fogle, who used to keep his air conditioner running when he wasn’t home so that his cat would be comfortable.
Over the years, the building has made improvements with an eye on the environment and savings. A decade ago, the board replaced the linoleum floors in the common areas with ceramic tile. Not only is the tile more attractive, it is easier to maintain and doesn’t require harsh and polluting cleaning solutions. Now it is considering accessing geothermal energy through the glen.
The co-op’s next big undertaking: switching to natural gas. Converting to the substance, which is much cheaper than oil, would cost the co-op $200,000, but ultimately save $125,000 a year. However, the building would need to access a natural gas line. And unlike solar panels, which can be installed by any number of solar installers, only Con Edison can access a gas line.
How likely is it that Con Ed engineers will find the time to dedicate a line to River Arts? “It’s a hope and a prayer,” says Fogle. “I’ve been after this thing for more than a year, and I’m still waiting.”