When you look out across New York City from the top of the Empire State Building, thousands of empty rooftops come into view. They could be ripe for solar panels, but the overwhelming majority of residents and business owners inside are renters with no control over those sunny patches of real estate.
The city's public housing authority, the largest public housing landlord in the United States, recognizes the potential, and it has a plan to put hundreds of those rooftops to work.
In January, the authority will start reviewing bids for phase one of a project to increase the amount of solar power generated in the city. It's a small step, but one could that could help grow the market for urban solar power. The goal is to install 25 megawatts of solar panels atop the city's public housing buildings, enough capacity to power 6,600 households, as part of New York City's 100 percent renewable commitment.
There's one catch: The New York City Public Housing Authority (NYCHA) can't directly use that power. It already has a deal with the electric utility Con Edison.
Instead, the authority plans to lease its rooftops for community solar projects―an arrangement that will allow companies to install solar panels in one location and sell the energy to customers who can't install their own.
"Our goal is to help solar power be accessible by anybody in New York City, which is not the case currently," said Daphne Boret-Camguilhem, senior program manager for energy and sustainability at NYCHA. By expanding the use of rootop solar, New York City would not only reduce its carbon footprint―the city has a goal to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050, and buildings are its largest sources of greenhouse gases―but also create renewable energy jobs for low-income residents and connect more communities to cleaner, cheaper power.
Solstice, a company that connects customers to community solar projects, says projects like this can start to reach a massive gap in the solar market: the 77 percent of Americans who cannot access rooftop solar because they have a shaded roof, rent their property, or have low income or a credit history that prevents them from purchasing panels.
"Many people are skeptical of the idea of community solar because it sounds too good to be true: you're saving money and switching to supporting clean energy, without having to put anything on your roof," said Kelly Roache, senior program manager for Solstice. "We get people to come learn about how that works, through relationships and trust-building. We're peeling back the layers to see what has prevented them from accessing it."
How Community Solar Works
Most community solar projects work in one of two ways: community solar "gardens" are organized by cooperatives or communities that own a solar farm, or space for solar panels is leased from large developers or landowners.
Financing for these projects varies depending on state regulations, but one common model is for a utility or other company to buy about 40 percent of the power, with the remaining 60 percent purchased by communities, typically through their local utility, Roache said. People who participate can save 10 to 20 percent on their bills, aren't penalized if they move, and there's usually a waiting list to join the project if someone drops out.
Groups like Solstice play an important role by building communities of solar power users. The company reaches potential customers by canvassing door-to-door, building relationships with faith-based organizations, community centers, and environmental groups, and teaching energy literacy, Roache said. So far, it has generated 23 megawatts of solar demand by connecting customers to solar projects in three states and Washington, D.C.
NYCHA's first phase will install up to 7 megawatts of community solar on the roofs and parking lot canopies in 14 public housing developments, enough to power up to 1,600 homes. The companies chosen will pay NYCHA to rent the rooftop space, and those companies will deliver solar power to customers through Con Edison.
Building a Solar Market with Public Housing
In order to create greater access for low-income customers, there have to be high-profile programs―like the public housing solar project in New York―that bring in investment and create a market, said Sean Gallagher, vice president of state affairs at Solar Energy Industries Association.
Other public housing authorities around the country are also exploring community solar, but with different approaches. Among them:
- Denver's housing authority plans to have its own community solar garden ready for operation by the end of the year on 74 acres at a solar test facility in Aurora. The project is expected to power up to 700 public housing units and low-income homes, while cutting energy bills by about 20 percent, offsetting over 54,000 tons of carbon emissions, and providing job training.
- St. Paul, Minnesota's public housing agency launched community solar gardens early this year outside of the Twin Cities to meet the electricity needs of 10 of its public housing high-rises. The solar gardens are expected to save the housing agency $130,000 a year.
- Those and other projects contribute to the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Renew300 Initiative, which aims to install 300 megawatts of solar on federally assisted housing by 2020.
Not all regions and utilities are as open to community solar, however, Gallagher said. Many utilities have net metering limits for the size of solar projects or don't allow third-party purchasing agreements, and electricity rates vary by state and utility company.
New York's community solar market hit a bump in September, when the New York Public Service Commission approved a plan to replace net metering with a complex metric for large-scale community solar projects. Solar advocates say it may undercut the community solar market by allowing utilities to decide the value of proposals.
"It's the tricky part of what New York is trying to hit―can you construct a compensation mechanism that's rational, fair, and gives customer some opportunity to save some money on their bills," Gallagher said.
Ripple Effects: Training and Jobs
Community solar is still a nascent market, but that's starting to shift. There are projects in 26 states, and according to GTM Research, 410 megawatts of community solar will be installed in the U.S. in 2017, and by 2019, there will be some 500 megawatts installed each year.
In projects involving public housing, cities are aiming for more than just cheap, clean power―they see benefits in job creation and training, too. In New York, 30 percent of the hires for the NYCHA project have to be NYCHA residents.
Miguel Rodriguez, who grew up in the Lillian Wald Houses, a public housing project on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, was used to frequent blackouts, when the complex would suddenly lose power. After Hurricane Sandy flooded the neighborhood, Green City Force came in to help with restoration efforts. Rodriguez enrolled in the program and became interested in solar. After getting certified and working as an installer, Rodriguez, who is now 24, got involved with the NYCHA project.
"It would be huge," he said. "People would have a reason to get together for something positive in the neighborhood, and the social value of the neighborhood would go up."
Now finishing up his associate's degree in New York, Rodriguez is already thinking about how to use the skills he's learned to build community solar projects outside the U.S. "My family is from the Dominican Republic, and there's shortages and energy problems," he said. "I'm thinking about learning more and then going in my own backyard."