An Empire State of (Solar) Mind: How New York Has Become a Leader in the Solar Industry

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Solar installation in progress on a public school in Brooklyn.  Credit: Department of Energy Management

Solar installation in progress on a public school in Brooklyn. Credit: Department of Energy Management

By Caitlin White, C+S ’15

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “solar?” Sunshine, bright, warm? What places then typically come to mind to fit this description? Florida, Los Angeles, Arizona. But how about New York City?

Since New York is not known for its warm, sunny days, it may come as a surprise to many that New York is one of the leading states in the U.S. solar industry, and the Big Apple is among the leading cities. According to a study by Environment America Research and Policy Center, New York ranks ninth out of 20 cities for installed solar capacity, or how much solar has been installed. But where does it all go? That’s where New York City’s Division of Energy Management (DEM) comes in!

Located within the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, the DEM handles the energy budget, bills and usage for New York government operations. They are also responsible for the implementation of clean energy technologies throughout City agencies, which is a strategic pathway to accomplish Mayor Bill de Blasio’s goals outlined in the One City Built to Last plan.

In this plan, Mayor de Blasio established the progressive goal to reduce citywide greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050, dubbed 80×50. One of the key initiatives to achieve this target is through increasing solar capacity on city-owned property. The goal (within the 80×50 target) is to install 100 megawatts (MW) of solar power over the next 10 years on city-owned buildings and property. To put this energy into perspective, it is the equivalent of powering approximately 16,000 to 17,000 homes each year. But the question still remains: where does it all go?

It’s easy for solar advocates to see an open field or large flat roof and think it’s a great place for solar panels. Since I have started as the DEM Clean Energy Resources intern, I have gained insightful experience. The most valuable pertains to the procurement process behind these solar installations (hint: it is much more extensive than thinking a location has enough space).

One of my duties at DEM has been analyzing feasibility studies for potential solar sites. Once possible sites have been identified, this is typically the next step in advancing the procurement process. Feasibility studies provide crucial information about the sites, such as how many square feet are available for a solar installation, how much capacity could be installed, if the building support the weight and whether there is significant shading. All of these details are key factors for informing decisions for future sites. Subsequently, the remainder of the (bureaucratic) procurement process involves identifying funding mechanisms, contractors and construction managers, permitting and of course, the installation.

Just when you might think you have the solar installation process figured out, think again. There is yet another aspect that is typically not considered: flawless coordination. Since the buildings receiving solar systems are city-owned, they may have multifunctional uses.

A prime example of this is what has been known as the 24 solar schools project, an initiative launched last September in conjunction with One City Built to Last, to install approximately 6 MW of solar on 24 schools across the five boroughs by April 2016. With this project, timing and coordination are key.

A completed solar installation on the Port Richmond Wastewater Treatment Plan. Credit: Department of Energy Management

A completed solar installation on the Port Richmond Wastewater Treatment Plan. Credit: Department of Energy Management

Building inspections, delivering materials and electricity shutdowns cannot occur while school is in session. So weekends, schools breaks and vacations must be taken advantage of. However, this does not guarantee free and clear days at the school. In fact, several weekends and breaks are often filled with other activities and events such as testing or camps that make it unavailable for solar work. Although schools are an extreme example, it demonstrates the possibility of conflicts and the need for flexibility and coordination among agencies.

A minor caveat I’ve come across is not every building can be utilized for solar, either due to poor roof condition or limited space. With open land within the city limits being in short supply, we are once again asking ourselves: where does it all go? Another facet of my work has been researching solar canopies that could be installed in parking lots. In the outer boroughs of New York, there are city colleges, sporting venues, parks and hospitals that have large parking lots, which are perfect candidates for canopies. Finding alternatives for rooftop solar is another creative solution that may not always be considered, but is integral for large cities with for the advancements of renewable energy in their power supply.

To date, New York has installed approximately 3 MW of solar on government property, and with the completion of the 24 schools in 2016, there will be approximately 9 MW of total installed capacity. This not only contributes to the 100 MW goal, but also the city’s emissions reductions target. The total 9 MW over 35 sites will reduce CO2 emissions by 7,285 metric tons annually, and 254,975 metric tons by 2050.

This is only just the beginning of the growth of renewables in New York. Last month, City Hall released another ambitious goal in coordination with the 80×50 target to have 100 percent renewable power supply by mid-century. The release of this goal signifies both the City’s commitment to combating climate change and the vital role renewable energies play in doing so. The efforts show that there is a viable and tangible solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and paint a hopeful picture of the future. Despite all of the complexities required to navigate the procurement process and coordinate solar installations, the city is moving at the speed of sunlight to cover the city with clean, renewable energy.

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