How Grassroots Efforts Are Making Solar Energy Affordable


Hoping to put solar panels atop the three-family home he owns in the South Slope, Adel Sarhan reached out to half a dozen installers for price estimates.

Most didn’t return his calls. One looked at a Google image of his roof and told him — erroneously — that solar wouldn’t be viable on his row house. Another gave him an outrageously high quote, according to Sarhan, a computer scientist who works in the finance industry.

“The biggest hurdle for companies to take on jobs is to do the site assessment and spend time and see if it’s viable or not. Maybe that’s one of the reasons they blow you off, if they don’t think it’s a big enough job,” said Sarhan, who wanted to go solar for environmental reasons and to take advantage of soon-to-be expiring incentives that make such projects cost effective.

“I was totally discouraged,” he said.

He had almost given up when he found Here Comes Solar, a new community initiative from the nonprofit Solar One that helps home owners get projects done at a discount by essentially turning small jobs into bigger ones.

The organization works with clusters of property owners, doing free site assessments to see if solar projects are viable for them. Once it has a critical mass of three to 10 committed homeowners in a geographic area, it bundles their projects together and solicits bids from pre-vetted solar installers. These newly launched peer networks then collectively decide on an installer.

Sarhan, who is part of a network with four other homeowners, signed a contract about a month ago and expects to have solar panels installed by the end of the summer. Though his system will cost more than US$28,000 to install, it will end up costing just roughly US$7,500 after factoring in rebates, state and federal tax credits and a city property tax abatement, Sarhan noted.

He expects to recoup his costs — powering his first-floor and basement unit, as well as his building’s common areas — in less than six years.

Here Comes Solar is one of several efforts supported by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority(NYSERDA) looking to harness grassroots interest in sustainable energy in order to increase adoption.

In addition to Here Comes Solar’s peer-to-peer network model, the city will see its second so-called “Solarize” campaign — a locally-organized group purchasing program that allows residential and commercial property owners to get a discount within a limited time frame.

“Solarize Brooklyn CB6,” which launched Tuesday and will run through Sept. 30, will host up to eight community education workshops in Community District 6’s neighborhoods: Park Slope, Gowanus, Carroll Gardens, Red Hook and the Columbia Waterfront District.

After the workshops, property owners will be able to sign up for free assessments from two pre-vetted solar panel installers (who won a bidding process to participate) and will likely get projects done at a 10 to 20 % discount, said Laurie Reilly, of Sustainable CUNY, which is working on the campaign.

One of the main challenges these programs are trying to tackle are the “soft costs” of solar installation, like getting permits and figuring out zoning issues. In New York City, these costs account for more than 64 % of solar projects, as hard costs, like the panels themselves, have come down, Reilly said.

“Only 5 % of people who get site analyses do it,” Reilly said. “In Solarize programs, about 39 % do it.”

Sustainable CUNY — which created a NYC Solar Map to help New Yorkers figure out if their buildings might be good candidates for solar energy — is also working with city agencies and others addressing the difficulties of the permitting process, Reilly added.

“You might think it’s the cost of labor for installation, but the bigger parts are permitting with the Department of Buildings and working with Con Ed,” said Chris Neidl, director of Here Comes Solar. Plus, owners pursuing this on their own have to hire architects and expeditors to process permits. “It adds a lot of cost and a lot of uncertainty.”

While in the suburbs, it’s pretty easy for solar installers to look at satellite images and know whether panels would work, in Brooklyn, for instance — where there is a high concentration of 100-year-old row houses — it’s tricky to know whether a building’s roof is structurally sound enough to handle the panels. Moreover, there are fire code restrictions on the amount of space you can use for rooftop structures.

To complicate things further, parking in these neighborhoods is often scarce, so installers — like many contractors — rack up parking tickets when they’re doing projects — which is another cost they factor into their estimates. There’s also an added layer of bureaucracy and complexity in landmark districts, he added.

By doing the assessments and delivering committed and educated customers, Here Comes Solar takes much of the burden off of the solar companies — which in turns allows them to offer lower prices.

“We’re materially reducing the hassle and cost. It’s more of a pipeline approach,” said Neidl, whose group is working with clusters in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Bed-Stuy and Ditmas Park.

(The name of the nonprofit, which creates a digital platform for their networks to communicate, is a nod to Clay Shirky’s 2008 book “Here Comes Everybody,” which explores how the Internet and social networks have revolutionized group dynamics and made it easier to connect, share and coordinate.)

“It’s like being in the hands of a good doctor, someone who sorts through the masses of stuff,” said Ann Schaetzel, 69, who owns a three-story house that is part of Sarhan’s cluster.

“We knew that there’s solar energy streaming down on us and some how we could use it. But I didn’t know the mechanics of it. I knew I didn’t know enough to make any good decisions,” said Schaetzel, whose Gowanus house was built in 1846.

Schaetzel is getting a US$27,000 solar system that will cost roughly US$6,700 after incentives, she said.

“What’s so beautiful about the model is that we really did become confident consumers,” she said. “There really is power in this group effort.” –

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