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Doing the New Math on Solar Energy

Bill Morris in Green Ideas on September 2, 2016

Prospect Heights

Solar Economics

Nancy Wiesenfeld on the roof of her Brooklyn co-op, future site of solar panels.

Sept. 2, 2016

Nancy Wiesenfeld, a self-described “environmentalist and conservationist,” was intrigued by the potential of solar energy. While attending a meeting about the city’s Retrofit Accelerator program, Wiesenfeld asked if anyone had any information about solar. She was given a link to the Here Comes Solar (HCS) website, an initiative that’s run by Solar One, a city-based non-profit environmental education and workforce training organization.

She contacted Solar One, and suddenly, “things started happening very quickly,” says Wiesenfeld, a retired copy editor for book publishers who, although no longer a board member, continues to serve as treasurer at the Grand Plaza, a 79-unit, pre-war co-op in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights. “They asked for our electric bills, then they came up with a proposal for roof-mounted panels, estimates of cost and generating capacity, and the yearly savings on our electric bill. Then I started asking questions. When I had all the answers, I put it in order and sent the proposal with a letter to the board.”

The seven board members liked what they saw. The new math on solar energy is driven by several factors – the declining cost of hardware and installation, the steady rise of energy costs, and the abundance of tax breaks and incentives. What was once regarded as an exotic luxury is now becoming increasingly affordable.

Under Here Comes Solar’s proposal, the Grand Plaza’s initial cost of $240,000 would be defrayed by a 20 percent abatement on the co-op’s city property taxes spread over four years; in addition, shareholders would receive individual credits on their state and federal income taxes totaling $132,000, which amounts to $13 per share. The co-op’s $24,000 annual Con Ed bill for the common areas and the two elevators would be cut in half. The system, according to HCS’s estimates, would pay for itself in about 15 years – or less, if energy costs continue their relentless rise.

How to pay for it? Rather than imposing an assessment, Wiesenfeld suggested that the board dip into the co-op’s $1 million reserve fund, which has been fed since 2005 by a monthly charge of 60 cents per share. “Assessing people to get the money back quickly didn’t make any sense,” Wiesenfeld says. “Besides, there may be shareholders who won’t benefit from the income-tax credit because they’re retired, and they can’t pay an assessment.”

The board agreed unanimously and then laid out the plan to shareholders at a meeting in late summer – just four months after Wiesenfeld went into action.

“I’m very excited about it,” she says. “It’s been gratifying to have something happen so quickly – something where I feel I’ve made a contribution that will make life better for the people in this building. It’s a case where individuals can make a difference for the environment.”

It turns out the new math on solar energy adds up quite nicely.

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