Coalition works to let the sun (energy) shine in

Members of LES Ready! — a coalition focused on emergency preparedness and resiliency formed after Superstorm Sandy — at the launch of Solarize LES last month in La Plaza Cultural, at E. Ninth St. and Avenue C. Among those pictured are, back row, from right, Paul Garrin, head of WiFi-NY, and Steve Herrick, executive director of the Cooper Square Committee; second row, far left, Chris Neidl, director of Solar One; third from left, activist Ayo Harrington; and third from right, Damaris Reyes, executive director of Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES); front row, third from right, District Leader Carlina Rivera.

Members of LES Ready! — a coalition focused on emergency preparedness and resiliency formed after Superstorm Sandy — at the launch of Solarize LES last month in La Plaza Cultural, at E. Ninth St. and Avenue C. Among those pictured are, back row, from right, Paul Garrin, head of WiFi-NY, and Steve Herrick, executive director of the Cooper Square Committee; second row, far left, Chris Neidl, director of Solar One; third from left, activist Ayo Harrington; and third from right, Damaris Reyes, executive director of Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES); front row, third from right, District Leader Carlina Rivera.

BY MICHAEL OSSORGUINE |A coalition of organizations, both nonprofit and for profit, is seeking to transform power generation in the East Village and Lower East Side by creating cooperative solar energy agreements that will incentivize installers to build solar energy systems at competitive prices.

The campaign, Solarize LES, is led by WiFi-NY, LES Ready! and Solar One. The initiative is committed to catching the East Village up with the rest of New York City in terms of solar panels.

In 2015, there were only five solar-powered installations in the East Village area and just one south of Houston St. on the Lower East Side — all for residential properties — while boroughs such as Staten Island had thousands of solar setups. Solarize LES is working with New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to change this situation.

As a subset of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s statewide NY-Sun initiative to bring solar energy to New York, Solarize LES conducts community outreach projects and connects potential clients with contractors.

“Over the past several years, solar has become quite affordable and competitive,” Max Joel, NYSERDA program manager, said. “For an individual solar customer, they can get the best competitive pricing by talking to multiple solar installers, getting different offers, and doing their homework. What happens with a Solarize campaign is that a lot of that work is done upfront by the organization that’s leading the Solarize campaign,” Joel explained.

With a $5,000 grant from NY-Sun, Solarize LES is conducting free physical and economic viability assessments, while also lobbying the city to embrace unified permitting processes.

In addition, Solarize LES is attracting NYSERDA-approved contractors, who can do large-scale solar installations. This, in turn, cuts down on the costs and time for Fire Department permitting, Fire Department and electrical inspections, and other “soft costs” that have hindered solar development in the past.

The goal is to pass the installers’ savings on to customers in the form of lower pricing.

The first Solarize campaign began in Portland, Oregon.

According to Paul Garrin, owner of WiFi-NY and a member of the LES Ready executive board, “Solar installers are reluctant if not nonresponsive to small projects.”

“A lot of solar installations are geared toward suburban houses — individual homes,” Garrin said. “It’s a lot easier to deal with one decision maker — a homeowner, for example — and a single system: one family consuming or benefiting from the electric credits.”

Garrin explained how he and his colleagues intend to overcome this obstacle: “By aggregating many projects in a concentrated area, they can get a better economy of scale for everybody.”

According to Garrin, Solarize LES is “customizing the campaign” to adapt to the Downtown environment. In short, the  initiative is creating investment opportunities where pre-vetted solar companies can bargain with interested businesses and landowners to formulate sensible plans for these “bundled” solar projects.

These cooperative deals are structured around a concept known as “net metering,” Garrin noted, which was established by the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act in 1978. The act requires utility companies, such as Con Ed, to provide “electrical credits” to solar-installation owners for the value of energy they do not consume, but rather add to the company’s grid.

Solarize LES coordinates power purchasing agreements, or P.P.A.’s, for applicants to their program, giving participants many ways to disburse the energy credits, plus determine who will make the initial investment in the solar array.

Christopher Neidl, director of Solar One, has been testing various P.P.A.’s to suit various scenarios.

“If a co-op [board] is in a position to buy [a solar installation] directly, which some of them would be, we want to present them with the option, and help them pursue that option,” Neidl said. “If they’re not in a position to do that, and it’s better to have a third party that owns [the solar installation] and operates it, then they can go that route. The key is giving them both avenues depending on what the circumstances are.”

To aid with funding, NYSERDA has made significant financial aid available for past projects.

As Joel explained, “Any solar installation in New York generally will receive funding through the NY-Sun initiative that NYSERDA runs.”

Granted on a per-watt basis, the financial support is another way NYSERDA is promoting the proliferation of solar energy in New York by giving incentives to customers directly.

With NYSERDA’s backing, Solarize LES is lobbying the City Council to ease bureaucratic red tape of the Department of Buildings and Fire Department. Efforts to relax zoning rules on solar installations, and allow for quick and sweeping permitting procedures — the aforementioned unified permitting processes — would greatly speed up approvals and draw more contractors into the solar business in the East Village and on the Lower East Side, advocates say.

Carlina Rivera, for one, who is a legislative aide to Councilmember Rosie Mendez, has pledged her support to help streamline permits.

“I want you to know that as a district leader, as someone who currently works for a councilwoman, that I will try my very best to support whatever that process needs to look like,” Rivera said at the Solarize LES launch event on May 5.

Another proposed innovation, aimed at working around Fire Department restrictions on rooftop construction, is the canopy design for solar installations. Solarize LES hopes to create installations raised 9 feet in the air, allowing free movement underneath for firefighters and others. Garrin believes the increased construction costs would be outweighed by the additional electricity generated by the greater surface area of the panels, which could cover the entire roof, creating more credits for the owner.

Solar projects are advertised as long-term money savers, and are a proven, energy-efficient way of reducing carbon emissions. The directors of Solarize LES are eagerly accepting applications for free economic and physical evaluations for groups interested in going green. The application can be viewed at http://solarizeles.org.

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