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A Co-op's Forecast: Sunny and Money, with Revenue-Generating Solar Power

Georgetown Mews, Kew Gardens, Queens

Illustration by Marcellus Hall for HABITAT Magazine
Oct. 20, 2014

Real estate attorney James Samson,a partner at Samson Fink & Dubow, calculates that the power will be worth roughly a quarter million dollars each year — with the caveat that the amount isn't absolutely predictable since as weather patterns vary from season to season and the rate that Con Ed will pay the complex for excess energy it feeds into the grid hasn't yet been set.

High Noon

Naturally, most of the energy generated will come around midday, when the sun is at its apex. Since this is also when energy demand is highest and rates charged to many customers are at their peak, the co-op association is arguing that it deserves a higher rate than that given to most companies and organizations supplying excess power.

But the planners of the Georgetown Mews solar project emphasize that the success of a plan like theirs isn't simply about filling out grant applications or tabulating prices and working with a spreadsheet. It's also, they're quick to point out, about avoiding pitfalls associated with construction and purchasing.

The complex has had to see that its trees are kept well trimmed so that all the light intended reaches the rooftop panels. Then there's the matter of the panels themselves. “A lot of solar panels that you're offered come from warehouses [that] are full of product from China put out by manufacturers that are already out of business,” Samson says. “So, if you want a reliable warranty on the goods, you have to be very careful.”

Meet Me in St. Louis

Determined to make sure of this, Mary Fisher, the board president, flew to St. Louis, Mo., to visit the factory of the supplier the co-op had selected. Then Samson went over the contract and negotiated each of its terms in excruciating detail. Through this haggling he managed to win underwritten warranties of 30 years on the panels and the best possible terms on the financing.

He further urges others to speak to multiple contractors before asking for bids and then identify the subcontractors and learn their reputations.

Ultimately, Samson observes, if you include the more than $300,000 in upgrades to the complex's electrical system — a necessary change, given that the system dates to 1952 —the real cost of the project will be about $88,000 on a job whose final bill will come to nearly $4 million. That's after subtracting all the tax benefits and grants.

Then there's all that free energy arriving each day from the sun.


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Adapted from "Power Play" by Jonathan Leaf (Habitat, October 2014)

Illustration by Marcellus Hall

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