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The Long Road to Solar at Georgetown Mews

For Georgetown Mews, the massive co-op in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, that has spent years trying to install solar panels, there finally appears to be sunlight at the end of the tunnel. And when this complex of 930 garden apartments in 38 buildings pulls off one of New York State’s largest solar projects ever, it will have set precedents in city permitting and Con Edison approvals that will make having solar energy simpler for every other co-op or condo in the city.

In the meantime, though, board president Mary Fisher is understandably frustrated at what many involved in the project claim has been foot-dragging on the part of Con Ed, which has caused delays that threaten deadlines for government subsidies. The public utility says it is merely following regulatory obligations and that it wants the project to succeed. But the co-op board feels otherwise.

“Con Ed has talked for years about going green,” says Fisher. “But now they say, ‘Oh, no, the complex is so big.’ Con Ed dangles the carrot in front of my face, and now they’re going to smack me because I’m a bad horse?”

“Statutorily, they’re required to permit us to do it,” says the board’s lawyer, James Samson, a partner at Samson, Fink & Dubow. “But they can set terms.”  The sticking point: Con Ed wants Georgetown Mews to upgrade several of the neighborhood’s transformers, those closet-size devices, usually buried in underground vaults, that transform power lines’ high-voltage electricity into household current. “This is outrageous,” Samson says. “They’ve allowed their transformers to deteriorate and they figure, ‘We’ll let the co-op pay for it.’ ”

A Con Ed spokesperson responds that it’s not about routine maintenance but about making upgrades to nine of the neighborhood’s fifteen transformers to ensure that they can handle all the electricity that this massive project will generate, since whatever the co-op doesn’t use will get fed back into the public electrical grid.

“Any customer putting [solar] or wind power or whatever it is – if work needs to be done to make sure the [grid] maintains safety and reliability for them and all the other customers in the area, then that customer is responsible for the upgrade costs,” the Con Ed spokesperson says. “I can see some frustration. They want to get things done as quickly and efficiently as possible. We recognize that. But we can see beyond that and believe the end result is going to be truly fantastic. We want to use new technology and are looking for partners like this co-op. We’re really excited to be working with them and really using them as an example of what could be.”

So what’s been the holdup? Will similar issues affect any co-ops or condos that attempt to go solar? The story is one of high hopes, bitter lows, tough negotiations, and even an innovative solution to city red tape that promises to streamline the permitting process for every large project to follow. But getting to this point, with installation expected to start in May, has not been fun.

A Series of Bad Breaks

For years, the middle-class Georgetown Mews has been arranging financing and securing approvals to install solar panels on 32 of its 38 buildings’ roofs. In 2014, when the project was in full-fledged development, the system was projected to produce around 35 percent of the community’s electricity, saving the co-op about $250,000 a year. Though budgeted at $3.5 million, federal and state incentives and a Con Edison credit would have reduced the co-op’s out-of-pocket expense to just $458,000.

That sunny outlook quickly darkened after a series of bad breaks. “I’ve been there since the beginning, since 2012,” recalls the endeavor’s project manager, Steve Owen, founder and president of the consulting firm Sol Alliance. “Originally [the contractor] was Mercury Solar Systems, one of the largest solar contractors in the state. In 2014, when we were getting ready to write a contract, Mercury was acquired by Real Goods Solar, one of the godfathers of the solar industry.” And that same year, Real Goods Solar, also known as RGS Energy, stopped doing commercial projects such as Georgetown Mews to focus on single-family homes and other smaller projects.

That meant finding a new contractor: Green Street Solar Power. “We stepped into a project that had been carefully vetted,” says Dave Kane, an executive with the firm, “a project that had been engineered and analyzed from top to bottom.” In the interim, rapidly evolving technology meant that, for roughly the same cost, “we increased the project’s electricity 40 percent just because we’re using the latest [solar] panels, which are more efficient.” That meant, says attorney Samson, that the project “would push us up to $425,000 a year in savings.”

That was the good news. The bad news was that the city was now asking for permit applications almost apartment by apartment. “The Department of Buildings (DOB) originally wanted me to submit 465 applications,” says Green Street general manager Samantha Lennon. “That would have taken a week and flooded the Department of Buildings. But we figured a way around it by creating 32 master permits, one for each building.”

“We reached out to the solar-ombudsmen team at Sustainable CUNY,” says Owen, referring to the City University of New York initiative. “And we were able to advocate with the DOB and the New York Fire Department to look at the current structure of the rules and regulations and see they could how better approve these kinds of projects. They created an IT solution to enable us to file multiple apartments under one permit. Together we created something that will pave the way for others to implement their clean energy future.”

A Trailblazing Co-op

Yet while approved permits are now trickling in from the DOB, the Con Ed obstacle remains. “Con Ed does an impact study for projects over 200 kilowatts,” says Lennon. The Georgetown Mews project as a whole is about 1.5 megawatts, or 1,500 kilowatts. That means each of the separately permitted 32 parts is well below the 200-kilowatt threshold. “But once all 32 applications came in, Con Ed decided that all 32 having the same owner and being in same area meant they would need an impact study,” Lennon says. “It was kind of a shock and surprise that they were going to do this. And then they said the study would take a week and that turned in a month and a half.”

“We do acknowledge that we have a lot of departments here, and they all have very specific roles – and that can be a little challenging sometimes, because it’s not the first time we’ve heard this,” the Con Ed spokesperson says about the process. “We have been talking to [Georgetown Mews] for a few years. The initial conversations were really about their rate, their credit, and what kind of program they’re going to fall under. It was only in January 2017 that they actually submitted [documentation] to us for interconnection [to the electrical grid] and that’s when we spoke to them about the process and the studies that would be required.”

The impact study, which cost the co-op $15,000, specified which transformers Con Ed wants Georgetown Mews to upgrade, as well as incidental improvements, such as installing a communication device to monitor the flow of surplus electricity into the grid. Ongoing negotiations between the co-op and Con Ed have delayed what is now a $3.3 million project that, with incentives and credits, will cost the co-op about $1 million out-of-pocket, more than twice the projected 2014 outlay, says site manager Robert D’Amico of Mark Greenberg Real Estate. The cost of the work required by Con Ed is roughly $153,000, says Samson. The co-op budgeted $100,000 for electrical upgrades, according to D’Amico. So all the angst and continuing negotiations and bad blood comes down to roughly $50,000 in a $1 million expenditure?

“In the grand scheme of things, you’re not talking tremendous amount of money,” D’Amico concedes. “But it’s still money you don’t have [budgeted]. And it’s salt in the wound.”

“You try to do the right thing,” says Fisher, “and instead of Con Ed rewarding us, it seems every time like the bear climbed over the mountain, what did he see? Another mountain.”

Samson remains sanguine. “All of these things are just minor irritants at this point,” he says. “There are always cost overruns and problems that have to be solved and bureaucrats to be dealt with on any big project. But we’re dealing with them.”

“We’re definitely looking forward to it,” D’Amico adds. “It’s going to be great for Georgetown. Anytime you can save money, you can balance your budget without increasing maintenance or doing assessments. But it’s been a very tedious process.”

That it has been. Yet if this middle-class co-op can pull off one of the biggest residential solar projects New York State has ever seen, then the city, Con Ed, and local solar professionals will have gained experience that will make the process go much more smoothly for any smaller co-op or condo planning to go solar as well.

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