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How New York City Is Turning Its Thousands of Roofs Into Power Providers

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New York City is home to thousands of acres of rooftop, some of the most expensive electricity in the country and progressive leadership that has embraced efforts to combat climate change.

Yet New York has been slower than other big cities in tapping into one constant source of clean energy: the sun.

Now though, with both state and city leaders making sweeping promises about swearing off using fossil fuels, some of the biggest expanses of flat roof in New York are being turned into sources of cheap and green electricity.

This year, the corporate owner of Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village in Manhattan completed the installation of the country’s largest array of solar panels on an apartment complex. And soon, the Bronx could have an even larger one, at the massive Co-Op City complex.

These broad-scale, privately funded projects could help New York catch up with big cities like Los Angeles and San Diego, which are national leaders in the solar power movement.

Building owners are taking advantage of subsidies offered by the state as part of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s campaign to wean New York off fossil fuels. Mr. Cuomo and New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, each have a “green New Deal” that calls for a radical shift to primarily renewable sources of power, like solar and wind, in the next few decades.

In June, the state said that it aimed for 70 percent of its power to be generated from renewable sources by 2030. Two months before, the New York City Council passed an ordinance that will require most new buildings to be topped with solar panels or roofs covered in grass or other vegetation.

“We’re seeing some really robust solar activity in New York City and I think we’re going to see a lot more solar going in in Manhattan,” said Noah Ginsburg, director of the Here Comes Solar project at Solar One, a nonprofit that promotes solar energy.

The project at StuyTown, as the complex is known, incorporated more than 9,000 solar panels onto 56 rooftops, making it by far the biggest in Manhattan. It effectively doubled the borough’s solar capacity, adding 3.9 megawatts, or enough to power more than 1,100 apartments, Mr. Ginsburg said.

StuyTown’s owner, the Blackstone Group, said it spent close to $10 million on the project. Nearly a quarter of that — $2.3 million — was offset by incentives provided by the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority, through its $1 billion NY-Sun program, according to David Sandbank, the program’s director.

The Blackstone Group would not say how much money they would save by adding the solar panels, which would generate enough energy to power only a fraction of the complex. StuyTown comprises the postwar buildings of Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, which sprawl over 80 acres of Lower Manhattan and contain 11,200 apartments.

The city and state have driven much of the investment in solar power by providing tax breaks and other incentives to homeowners and landlords. The state incentives began in 2014 with a goal of creating 3 gigawatts — 3,000 megawatts — of solar capacity statewide by 2023. This year, Mr. Cuomo doubled that target to 6 gigawatts, though he did not specify how that would be achieved.

Mr. Ginsburg said he is working with the managers of Co-op City, one of the largest, private housing complexes in the country, on a plan to install solar panels over its parking garages. That project, expected to go out for bids next month, could produce more than 5 megawatts, enough to power 1,500 homes, he said. Co-Op City has more than 15,000 apartments in 35 buildings.

Still, the projects illustrate the limitations so far of solar power, given that they would produce only a fraction of the electricity consumed on their own sites.

The 27,000 residents at StuyTown are not receiving a direct benefit from the installation because they do not pay separately for their power consumption. Their monthly rent covers electricity and water, said Susan Steinberg, president of the tenants association there.

Ms. Steinberg said her neighbors generally were aware of the project only because of the cranes and work crews that were present during the yearlong installation. The management company, StuyTown Property Services, announced earlier this year that the complex had received a LEED platinum rating from the United States Green Building Council.

“They’re very proud of it and, I think, rightly so,” Ms. Steinberg said of the complex’s management.

Rick Hayduk, StuyTown’s general manager, said that although the savings would flow to the management company, there could be intangible benefits for residents. He said residents have told him they got a good feeling from “living in a community where their landlord placed such an emphasis on doing the right thing.”

StuyTown pumps the energy it collects from the panels back into the power grid and receives credit from the local utility, Consolidated Edison, against its electric bills, Mr. Hayduk said.

But even though not enough energy is generated to power all of the complex, the solar energy will take pressure off the power distribution network on hot summer days when demand from Con Edison’s customers is peaking, said Damian Sciano, the utility’s director of distribution planning.

“Of all the areas we have in Con Ed, Manhattan has been the toughest area to get a good amount of solar in,” Mr. Sciano said.

Throughout Con Edison’s service area in New York City and part of suburban Westchester County, there are about 250 megawatts of solar power from all sources, Mr. Sciano said. That is a small fraction of the utility’s forecast peak demand of about 13,400 megawatts.

Solar power accounts for only about two percent of all the electricity generated in the country, said Abigail Ross Hopper, chief executive of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group. Ms. Hopper said the industry hopes to increase that share to 20 percent by 2030.

Nationally, Ms. Hopper said, most solar power comes not from rooftop panels but from utility-scale installations that essentially are power plants. Most of them are in western and southwestern states that tend to have abundant sun.

New York now ranks sixth among American cities in the capacity of its installed solar panels, according to Environment America, an advocacy group. Still, its total of about 200 megawatts is less than half of the capacity in Los Angeles, which has the highest capacity of any city in the country.

Manhattan and the Bronx have lagged behind the city’s other boroughs in the adoption of solar power, according to statistics compiled by the City University of New York. Many of the early adopters were homeowners who installed panels on their roofs to reduce their electric bills.

The price of electricity in the New York City area is more than 40 percent higher than the national average, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hawaii is the only place in the country where consumers traditionally pay higher prices for electricity.



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