On a chilly December morning, an odd amalgam of people convened on the roof of a Harlem co-op. The crowd included members of the co-op board, solar energy advocates, politicians, publicists, contractors, and a handful journalists who had come to record the moment for posterity.
It was, in its way, an historic moment. This affordable 60-unit Housing Development Fund Corporation co-op had become the first in the city to install solar panels under an ambitious program designed to bring renewable energy to buildings where it had once seemed like an unaffordable luxury.
“The stars aligned on this one,” David Barr, one of the contractors, said, motioning to the new solar panels that cover most of the building’s new roof. “It’s great that solar energy is becoming available to everyone, and not just the select few.”
Carolyn Steinberg, president of the co-op board, drove the point home: “We’re proving that you don’t have to be rich to have solar power.” And Arlene James, the board’s secretary, added, “I can’t wait to see how much we save!” This historic occasion began, humbly enough, when board member Kate Schell heard that a group called WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a nonprofit working to bring renewable energy to upper Manhattan neighborhoods, was holding a public forum. “It was really interesting,” recalls Schell, who works as a book editor. “One person talked about the science and engineering of solar panels. Another talked about financing. Someone else talked about the uptown program. It sounded so achievable.”
When Schell reported back to the co-op board, she got a warm reception. “We all immediately liked the idea,” says Steinberg, the board president. “We could become part of the solution instead of being part of the problem.” WE ACT brought in the nonprofit Solar One, which did a feasibility study, provided cost and savings estimates, and studied tax breaks and incentives. Working in collaboration with WE ACT, Solar One produced a request for proposals that required the contractor to use some of the workers from WE ACT’s neighborhood jobs-training program. The stars did, indeed, align.
“It’s all upside,” says Steinberg. “We could put up a system that will provide the electricity for our common areas – and it could be done with virtually no money down.”
Since the board was in the middle of a major parapet replacement and brick-pointing project – and since the roof was nearing the end of its life expectancy – the board decided to have the contractor resurface the roof before moving ahead with the solar installation. The roof resurfacing cost $75,000, and the board paid just $38,000 out of pocket to install the solar panels, thanks to a $22,000 grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. Various tax abatements and incentives will bring the board’s cost down even further – resulting in a return on investment in less than six years.
“This is one of the projects that bring it all together,” says Cecil Corbin-Mark, WE ACT’s deputy director, who notes that the group has 10 similar solar projects in the pipeline. “It’s creating jobs for people who live in our community, it addresses the climate crisis, and it cuts costs for multifamily affordable housing. And we think this model could be scaled up and replicated at other buildings.”
“We’re all very happy with how it’s played out,” says Steinberg, who stresses that the extensive capital projects have been possible because the co-op has a 30 percent flip tax on the profits from apartment sales. “The crucial thing for boards is to think long-term about the building’s needs.”
The last word belongs to Schell. “This is so gratifying,” she says. “It’s a warm and fuzzy feeling to realize you made a difference, small as it might be. I hope this encourages other boards to do it.”