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Here's How You Can Tap Solar Energy For Your Apartment

By Amy Zimmer | October 11, 2016 4:57pm
 There are ways to get into the solar game even if you can't install your own solar panels.
There are ways to get into the solar game even if you can't install your own solar panels.
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BROOKLYN  — The landscape for solar energy is about to change.

Soon, renters or other New Yorkers who want renewable energy but aren’t able install their own solar panels will be able to purchase electricity from neighboring solar projects.

Under the new model, known as “community shared solar," installation developers will pair up with building hosts, and outside community members will be able to subscribe to use the energy in exchange for a credit on their electric bill.

“It basically opens up solar for people who don’t have control of own rooftops or have too much shading. It brings solar to people in ways we couldn’t have done before,” said Tria Case, of Sustainable CUNY.

The new model was made possible by state legislation passed about a year ago, and while no such installations have yet been completed, Sustainable CUNY recently launched a shared solar program in Brooklyn’s Community Board 6, which includes Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Red Hook, Gowanus and Park Slope.

The program is currently in the early stages, connecting solar developers with building hosts, said Case, who also noted that Sustainable CUNY is working with the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and the city’s Economic Development Corporation to get shared programs up-and-running across the boroughs.

But solar has already gained tremendous ground across the city even outside of community shared solar projects. So far this year, the Department of Buildings granted more than 3,150 solar permits, up more than 350 percent from 2012, the last year of the Bloomberg administration.

Officials said that the DOB has had to implement reforms to the permitting system to meet increased demand from buildings that want to get into alternative energy.

If you want to go solar, here are some things to consider:

1. Does your roof get enough sun?

To understand whether your building gets enough sun exposure to be a good candidate for solar panels, check out Sustainable CUNY’s NY Solar Map.

This highly detailed resource lets you see whether your building's roof is shaded or not. It was recently updated with features allowing you to see which solar installers are doing business in your zip code and what other people in your area are paying for their projects.

NY Solar Map also provides information on available programs that can help further reduce your costs, Case explained.

“The portal provides that detail: what are the key considerations to know about,” she said, adding that it's especially helpful to have “an objective third party," if you’re coming to this “without historical knowledge of solar."

2. Who owns the roof?

You'll need to understand who has the final say in whether you can put solar panels on your rooftop and how the energy bills are paid.

“Who owns the building? Who controls the roof? Who pays the electricity bills?” asked Noah Ginsburg, director of Here Comes Solar, a nonprofit focused not only on expanding solar across the city, but also on making it affordable. “That’s the part that’s going to vary building-to-building.”

The answers may be simpler for single-family home owners than in a co-op, where board politics, building finances and tax issues might come into play. But the community solar model provides greater flexibility to co-ops considering solar, which account for 75 percent of home ownership in the city.

A co-op, for instance could either install a solar energy system to offset their common area electricity load (hallway lights, elevators, etc.) or alternatively, under the new community shared solar model, the solar energy credits from a single large solar energy system could be distributed among the individual apartments, reducing each shareholder's individual Con Edison bill, Ginsburg noted.

3. Can your roof handle solar panels?

Another important consideration is your roof's age.

“The ideal is to have a young roof, installed in the last 10 to 15 years,” Ginsburg said.

“Having an older roof isn’t going to rule it out," he added. "A lot of people do roof repairs along with solar. Some have even done roof replacement.”

Certain solar design elements — like having a canopy of elevated panels instead of panels flush against the roof — might help some buildings if they have to make roof repairs later, he noted.

Canopies can also offer creative solutions to challenges buildings have meeting fire codes.

“The fire department requires a clear pathway from the front to the back of the building,” said Russell Unger, Urban Green Council's executive director. “Because the fire department needs this path, you can’t cover your whole roof.”

He added that building owners should know the city's new energy code, which took effect Oct. 3, requires new homes to be “solar ready." That means 60 percent of their rooftop has to be available to solar energy, structurally designed to withstand the weight, and have a conduit for hooking up the potential energy source.

4. How are you going to pay for solar?

For those who can pay the installation costs upfront — including potentially hefty fees for architects and expeditors — there are many incentives to help.

“There is no area of green building that is more lavish in terms of incentives than solar. Every level of government wants you to put solar on your rooftop,” Unger said.

The state’s $1 billion NY-Sun initiative through NYSERDA (the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority) has a host of incentives.

“NYSERDA might take care of 15 to 25 percent of your costs off the top,” Unger said. “New York State will give a 30 percent tax credit, up to $5,000; New York City will give you 20 percent spread over 4 years; the federal government gives a 30 percent tax credit.”

You can also lease your roof out to solar installers, who get the tax breaks while you enter into a long-term agreement to buy the electricity at a discount.

“You pay nothing out of pocket,” Unger said. “You get a good return, but not as good as if you paid for it yourself.”

There are also community-based programs that offer bulk purchases to help bring costs down, like Solarize NYC, one of which was led by Sustainable CUNY last year in Community Board 6, and similar programs run by Here Comes Solar. Under this model, buildings near each other are bundled together to get a better deal from an installer.

5. Landlords of rentals are also embracing solar.

With the tax incentives increasing and the costs of the panels dropping, going solar makes good business sense even for landlords, said Daniel Benedict, of Benedict Realty Group.

His firm, which runs several rent-stabilized rental buildings in Queens, Brooklyn and The Bronx, recently installed more than 1,700 solar panels on roofs at nine of its properties, making enough energy to power roughly 75 percent of the buildings’ common areas needs, Benedict said.

“Your payback is 10 years,” he said. “It’s a long-term investment. It’s not a get rich quickly kind of scheme. But you lower your operating costs and you do good for the environment.”