Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Despite Multiple Tax Incentives, Few Go Solar In New York City

For all the efforts by municipalities and politicians around the country to push alternative energy and solar and wind power incentives to reduce the need for conventionally generated electricity, only a handful have actually made the switch. The numbers, while increasing since fiscal year 2009, aren't exactly encouraging:
In the 2011 fiscal year, which ended in June, just 75 residential property owners received city approval to install solar-panel systems. That number was up sharply from 2009, just after the creation of a property tax abatement to encourage the use of solar power. That year, there were just five approvals, for both commercial and industrial projects; in 2010, the number of residential approvals jumped to 13.

“We’ve seen a tremendous amount of growth even though the numbers are small,” said Robert D. LiMandri, the commissioner of the Buildings Department. And he is bullish, he said, that the growth will continue. “At the end of the day, to me, this is just another permit,” he said, “and if enough people do it on the block or in the neighborhood, it really will change the way New York City lives.”

To that end, the department is about to roll out new educational materials to help the licensed architects and engineers who are required to file for permits. In addition, there is a new interactive map, developed by the City University of New York with the city and the federal Energy Department, that shows the estimated solar potential of each of the nearly one million buildings in the five boroughs.

But there are still challenges to creating your own sun-driven power generator, installers say. Not every building is suitable; the panels should be placed at a 30- to 40-degree angle facing south to maximize their power, said Mark Chandarpal of Go Solar Green NY in Hollis, Queens, who put in the Antonios’ panels. That is easier on a sloped roof like the Antonios’, but a flat roof would require a support structure, he said.

Some roofs are simply too small or shady to pay off. For example, a neighbor of the Antonios’ son wanted to install a system on his house in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, but could not because the city would not let him prune the tall trees shading his roof.
5, 13, 79. That's in a city with 8 million people, and hundreds of thousands of properties. Not all properties are amenable to solar power projects, and many of those owners aren't willing to plunk down tens of thousands of dollars for the possibility of recouping that investment over 20 years or more (though if electricity prices skyrocket, the return on investment could be cut).

I would contemplate solar power on my own home, but shade trees would block much of the sun, and I already derive a benefit from those trees in the form of lower power needs during the summer. Cutting them down to be able to generate more power isn't a winning argument.

I haven't seen Consolidated Edison push a solar power initiative along the lines of PSE&G's dispersed solar power generating plan, where solar panels were installed on tens of thousands of light poles and transmission poles throughout New Jersey to generate 40 up to megawatts of power. Con Ed is in a better position to do the kind of solar power installations than individuals or businesses, but there is a place for individual and business solar or wind power generation installations. Even state and local authorities like the MTA should be contemplating installations along their rights-of-way or structures to capture power that otherwise would go to waste. Co-locating power along those rights of way would improve reliability of power to mass transit that is a heavy user of electricity, reduce costs to the transit authorities, and provides locations that are often free of obstructions that would make power generation difficult.

Take a parking garage for example. Hackensack, New Jersey recently installed a major solar power array on the roof of one of its parking garages at the courthouse. The installation, done by Pfister of Paterson, will provide 10-15% of the Bergen county administrative building's power demands, and will hopefully save anywhere from $250,000 to $1 million over 15 years as comparing the PSE&G power rate to the reduced rate charged by Pfister. The County didn't have to pay for the project, which means that Pfister was able to acquire the space to build the solar array for no cost in return for the reduced costs to the county.

That's space that would have gone to waste but is a good site for solar power. The MTA has plenty of similar structures, including any number of bus and subway depots.

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