Solar energy is hot right now in New York City. The number of applications for solar panel permits increased by 400% over the last six years. This is partly due to the significant drop in the cost of solar. As Emily Dugdale reports, that doesn’t mean everyone who wants solar energy can afford it.
Yvette Leeper-Bueno is showing me her home’s energy meters. It’s the typical basement setup – we walk downstairs and on the left hand wall are grey boxes with confusing dials.
LEEPER-BUENO: This is actually the solar meter itself – you can see all the kilowatts per hour, it’s right here…. I mean I don’t know how to read it too well…
But she doesn’t have to. Her monthly bills tell her that one of these boxes is saving her a lot of money. Leeper-Bueno and her husband say they were some of the first in Central Harlem to install solar energy panels on their renovated brownstone. Leeper-Bueno says it’s something they always wanted to do.
LEEPER-BUENO: We’re so committed to this. And we want to have this house that’s fully as efficient as it can be. But also, one that doesn’t have to rely on conventional needs for energy.
In the past six years, New York City has built over 64,000 solar installations. Everywhere from public schools to government buildings providing nearly 800 megawatts – enough to power thousands of homes. Leeper Bueno’s system cost her over $40,000 to install – but since she installed her system seven years ago, the cost of solar panels – the kind you use at home – is down 70% – making solar cheaper than ever. But not cheap enough for many. Like the residents of the Hamilton Co-op, a historically low-income apartment building in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn.
MARTIN: Right away they just said no. The solar was some kind of futuristic thing, and we had too many things going on at the time.
That’s Troy Martin, a co-op board member, and, resident. The first thing you notice about his neighborhood? Wide, flat rooftops – great for solar. But his building is old. There are concerns about more basic needs. Residents say there was no gas for months last year. And now there are complaints about a water leak in the garage. Martin estimates that with solar his co-op could save at least 20% of its electricity bill, and, pay off its investment in solar panels in four years. But there’s resistance.
MARTIN: How do you figure out a way to get people to solar when they have all these other costs.
DUGDALE: And you feel like probably people in this building, they would rather see other things…
MARTIN: No, I think they would be interested in solar, but currently we have projects that absolutely have to be done.
Which Martin says is too bad, because if you head upstairs a few floors, you’ll see that the afternoon sun today is baking the rooftop.
MARTIN: There’s no buildings, front or back, so it’s pure unobstructed space. As soon as the sun’s coming up, and all during the entire day until it goes down, we would be getting sun.
Martin’s mission for the past five years has been to get solar panels on this roof. Still despite his efforts, there are no solar panels here. He even worked with a nonprofit called Solar One to map out a plan. He hoped the co-op could take advantage of state tax incentives for New Yorkers who buy solar. A a tax credit equal to 25% of the cost of the solar system. But in order to get the credit, you need to earn a lot of money. Anika Wistar-Jones helps residents of affordable housing go solar at Solar One.
WISTAR-JONES: A lot of the incentives for solar are based on having really great credit and getting tax incentives, but if you’re low income, then you don’t pay income taxes, so the tax incentives are kind of useless.
hat means if you use solar the state will give you money back. But if you don’t earn enough to pay income taxes in the first place, you’re out of luck.
WISTAR-JONES: And that’s just so unfair.
But Benjamin Ho has a different take. He was the former lead energy economist on the White House Council of Economic Advisors. He says when it comes to low income buildings and residents, he’s not sure solar energy is the right way to go.
HO: I worry about the price, and the fact that if communities are investing this much money in these solar panels, they might not be spending money on other things that might be more important.
Like the leaky garage roof, and lack of gas at the Hamilton co-op last year. And despite flat, sunny roofs like the one at the coop, Ho is also skeptical about the effectiveness of solar in New York City.
HO: Solar is especially useful in sunny places with lots of open space, like Arizona, and it tends to be sort of more costly and less efficient in urban places where land is really expensive and you don’t get as much sunlight.
The benefit of investing in solar energy, when the payoff is not immediate, can be hard to grasp. Anne Mini, an elderly resident, is sitting on the stoop of the co-op resting on her walker and chatting with neighbors. She’s lived in the building for almost 30 years. She says solar energy isn’t at the top of her agenda.
DUGDALE: What people are saying is that it saves a lot of money on your electricity bill.
MINI: I really don’t know anything about it, and I don’t remember them talking about it.
Mini says she’s got other priorities.
MINI: I think more about the elevators. Because I feel they’re dangerous.
Cuomo says 50 percent of New York state energy will come from renewable sources like solar by 2030. But Mini says the coop’s solar panels can wait a little longer. Emily Dugdale, Columbia Radio News.