Estelle Bajou, a board member at her affordable Harlem co-op, doesn't want to let lack of funds keep her building from cutting its carbon emissions. Part of her motivation is financial. If buildings like hers fail to meet carbon caps under the city's Climate Mobilization Act, they will face stiff fines in 2025 and again in 2030. Another part of Bajou's motivation is the desire to upend expectations.
“When you’re low-income, there’s an expectation that you won’t be able to afford to go green,” Bajou tells Gothamist.
Installing solar panels on the roof was one option. Government incentives and tax credits can cover more than 70% of the upfront costs of solar panels, yet customers still end up paying tens of thousands of dollars for installations.
Looking for alternatives, a growing number of leaseholders, small businesses or even low-income homeowners like Bajou are turning to community solar programs. Renewables developers compare the concept to Netflix — a subscription in one of these programs entitles a person to a share of a solar farm or a rooftop installation rather than outright ownership. This share of renewable power generation offsets a customer’s own electricity usage, reflected directly on their utility bill. Just as important, it helps the building move toward compliance with the Climate Mobilization Act.
This option also allows energy customers to choose solar power without paying for the upfront costs, construction and commitment. Out-of-pocket expenses for household solar installations range from $15,000 to $22,000 in New York City, according to market analysts at EnergySage.
In February, Bajou’s building enrolled in community solar for its common-area energy usage. The signup process can be done online in a few minutes with a private solar company that has an agreement with Con Edison. The Harlem co-op has a guaranteed discount of at least 10% in savings compared to what they previously paid the local power provider, a standard benefit for most subscriptions.
Last year was a record-setting year for installing community solar nationwide and in the state of New York, according to a report from Wood MacKenzie, a global research consultant for natural resources and power. Their analysis also shows that community solar’s energy output doubled in New York from 2019 to 2021.
Bajou says it was a way of getting renewable energy immediately and without having to budget for a capital project or deal with construction. “You don’t feel like you have as much power to influence policy makers, and joining this collective [community solar] does feel really good,” she says. “When you’re pinching pennies to make ends meet, it still mattered to me for many years to try and minimize my (carbon) footprint as best I can. Community solar was a no-brainer. We didn't have to install solar panels to be part of the green energy community.”
Noah Ginsburg, a program director at Solar One, a nonprofit that assists New Yorkers in navigating their options for renewable energy, says community solar is democratizing the switch to green energy. “Solar is something that we can do here and now," Ginsburg says, "and with community solar, anyone can sign up.”
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