Bill Morris in Bricks & Bucks on March 23, 2022
For Peter Morello and his six fellow board members at the Thwaites Terrace House co-op in the Bronx, it was manna from heaven at the perfect time. The five-story, 132-unit brick building near the New York Botanical Garden needed extensive work on its roof, parapets, facades and lintels — about $600,000 worth. How to pay for it?
“Our management company, Anker Management, brought in a company called Urban Energy to tell us about community solar,” Morello recalls. “Russell Wilcox, the founder of the company, told us that under the program they would install 343 solar panels on our roof, and our shareholders could receive a 10% reduction on their electricity bills. But the main attraction was the lump sum payment upfront — $150,000 for a 25-year lease of our roof — plus a $120,000 reduction on our property taxes spread over four years. And we didn’t have to put down any money.”
Manna from heaven. The money from the lease and the tax abatement would cover almost half of the cost of the repairs the building needed.
“We were elated,” Morello says. “In 2019 we refinanced our underlying mortgage with National Cooperative Bank, and we knew we had to refurbish the roof. When all this money fell into our lap, we decided this was the time to do the work. We put a reflective skin on the roof and rebuilt some of the parapets from the roof to the coping stones. We would not have been able to get a warranty on the roof if we didn’t fix the parapets. Now we have a 20-year warranty.”
Urban Energy, a solar developer on multi-family buildings, was founded in 2017 by Wilcox, who says he was introduced to the Thwaites Terrace House co-op board by Anker Management last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to be on the wane. “We answered a lot of the co-op board’s questions,” Wilcox says. “Once they figured out the scope of work on the building’s envelope, we signed the deal for the solar project. Peter Morello has been a great advocate.”
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Community solar was designed to bring green energy to under-served low- and middle-income neighborhoods. Under the original setup, a developer installed solar panels in vacant lots or on roofs, and the energy they generated was fed into the Con Edison grid. Con Edison then issued credits to subscribers of the community solar array, which reduced their electricity bills without any upfront outlays.
Wilcox notes that the community solar program underwent a major change last fall when the Public Utilities Commission slashed the value of the credits by more than half, which made the original business model untenable for many solar installers. Urban Energy will adapt to the change by offering electricity from the Thwaites Terrace House solar panels directly to the co-op’s shareholders.
“We’re trying to take an innovative approach,” Wilcox says. “The model is still there — a co-op or condo board getting hundreds of thousands of dollars while we get the permits, do the design and installation and then own the solar array. For boards, it’s as easy as signing a lease. It’s a matter of education and trust.”
There’s one more ancillary benefit. “We had already converted to a gas boiler and installed LED lights, so we were close to meeting our carbon emission caps under the Climate Mobilization Act for 2024,” Morello says. “With the solar panels, we’re thinking we’ll be in a good position for the next caps in 2030. By then we’ll have a separate boiler for the domestic hot water system so we don’t have to run our boiler year-round. We think we did pretty well.”
PRINCIPAL PLAYERS — PROPERTY MANAGER: Anker Management Group. SOLAR DEVELOPER: Urban Energy. CONTRACTOR: Rose Restoration. ARCHITECT: Joseph Fernandez. LENDER: National Cooperative Bank.
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