The Ultimate Urban Solar Lab: New York City

NYC Rooftops

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Federal stimulus funds could turn New York City’s rooftops into a laboratory for urban solar.

Con Edison, which serves 3.2 million customers in the New York City area, is proposing a 12 megawatt solar energy pilot program that would add solar panels to the utility’s buildings and property, help customers pay for installations, and solicit developers to build larger rooftop systems in its territory.

While 12 megawatts might sound small, the potential is enormous.

If it succeeds, what New York City learns from the project will shed valuable light on how photovoltaics can help cities worldwide manage peak electricity demands on hot summer days.

Those hot summer days are when air conditioners cause big spikes in electricity demand and are also, conveniently, the time when solar power is at its prime. Which is why solar advocates believe photovoltaics could play a key role in tamping down the summertime peaks, removing stress from the grid and displacing energy from some of the dirtiest and least-efficient power plants in the process.

Con Edison hopes to tap funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to help pay for the estimated $20 million to $25 million program. The company is suggesting that any expenses not covered by existing state, local and federal solar incentives be paid through a state renewable energy fund or assessed in fees to customers.

The utility is most interested in solar’s ability to relieve stress on its electric grid. The projects would be targeted in neighborhoods where summertime peak electricity demand is at or near capacity and would hopefully provide what Chris Neidl, outreach and advocacy coordinator for Solar One, a nonprofit that promotes the use of solar power in New York City, calls a sort of “grid acupuncture.”

Think of the grid like a freeway system. When power is generated close to where it is consumed – says, on a customer’s rooftop – that’s the equivalent of taking cars off the city’s badly congested streets. If more electricity needs to commute to a neighborhood than the existing lanes can handle, the utility may need to build new infrastructure to avoid blackouts.

Solar could pay for itself many times over if it helps a utility avoid having to dig up city streets and upgrade transmission lines. Any energy generated from solar also displaces energy produced by peaker power plants, oil or gas burning generators that are only fired up only when demand spikes upward. In New York, those plants tend to be among the dirtiest and least-efficient among fuel-burning sources, Neidl said.

"It’s a very positive step," Neidl said of Con Ed’s proposal. "I give them credit. We should be supportive of anything like this, but vigilant that it does lead to something bigger."

At 12 megawatts, the Con Edison project is small compared to efforts by other utilities. Just last month, New Jersey’s PSE&G announced a 120 megawatt solar initiative and Southern California Edison unveiled plans for a 1.3 gigawatt project.

However, the New York program would be a major step forward for the city and the utility, said Christy Herig, regional director for the Solar Electric Power Association, a national nonprofit.

Con Edison has some unique challenges with its grid and territory that other utilities haven’t faced, Herig said. State-level solar incentives haven’t been established for as long in New York as they have in states like California, Colorado and New Jersey. Solar is well-suited for the city, but "doing anything in an urban environment is always more difficult" and expensive, Herig said. Other utilities have the luxury of more open space for large projects.

New York City’s electric grid poses another challenge. Its network design complicates the process of integrating solar because sections of the grid are served from multiple sources instead of a single-source, one-way electricity stream. The flow of electrons is more complicated, and solar has potential to disrupt the flow if the proper connections aren’t made.

That challenge isn’t insurmountable, though. The state encourages net metering, in which customers that generate more electricity than they use can sell what’s left over to the utility, and Con Edison customers have already plugged in just over 2 megawatts of distributed solar electricity. The pilot project, which still requires state Public Service Commission approval, would multiply that by sevenfold over the course of 18 months and give Con Edison’s engineers more experience with solar net metering with the system.

About 15 other major cities with solar initiatives have similar grids, which means Con Edison’s experience will be watched closely, Herig said.

Solar One is encouraged. Neidl said Con Edison’s interest in exploring the economics of solar and working out kinks with its grid connections suggests the utility doesn’t think solar will be a fringe power source in the future.

Indeed, a report released today shows that the market for PV is growing. In 2008, worldwide solar installations reached 5.95 gigawatts, up 110% from 2007, the San Francisco-based solar consulting firm Solarbuzz reported. Spain and Germany had the lion’s share of that power, with the United States coming in third at 360 megawatts of installed solar photovoltaic in 2008, up from 230 megawatts in 2007.


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