Solar Uptown Now Brings Solar Power To Affordable Housing In Northern Manhattan

September 26, 2018

One of the brightest solutions showcased as part of Climate Week NYC 2018 (September 24-30) is a partnership program.

The partnership includes Solar Uptown Now (S.U.N.), that is bringing 415 kW-DC of rooftop solar capacity to 11 buildings, primarily Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC) affordable housing cooperatives, in Harlem and Washington Heights. Bringing solar to affordable housing is significant given that climate change disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color, such as those in Northern Manhattan, and solar not only helps these communities lower their greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change, but it also provides significant cost savings for a population that historically spends a greater portion of their income on energy bills.

In 2016, nonprofits WE ACT for Environmental Justice (WE ACT), Solar One and the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB) partnered to launch the S.U.N. program. It is supported by the NYC Solar Partnership as part of the Solarize NYC program, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority’s N.Y. Sun initiative as well as by generous funding for WE ACT from The Kresge Foundation and the Energy Foundation. The NYC Solar Partnership is led by Sustainable CUNY of the City University of New York, which works collaboratively with the New York City Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and the New York City Economic Development Corporation to promote an equitable and self-sustaining solar market in pursuit of the Mayor’s goal of increasing solar capacity around the city.

The first project, installed by American Solar Partners, was completed in August 2018 at an HDFC co-op on St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem. The remainder of the projects will be installed by Grid City Energy starting in October.

The WE ACT program originated from a community based planning effort as part of WE ACT’s Northern Manhattan Climate Action plan. WE ACT manages the program, spearheading the work in the community, recruiting partners Solar One and UHAB to help evaluate potential sites, consult with the HDFC boards to determine financing strategies and gain approval, and solicit bids from qualified local solar companies. The goal of S.U.N. was to install 150 kW-DC of solar capacity on Northern Manhattan HDFCs by the end of 2018. As of Climate Week NYC 2018, 11 buildings are moving forward with solar projects through the campaign for a total of 415 kW-DC in solar capacity, exceeding the campaign goal by 265 kW-DC. The first project, installed by American Solar Partners, was completed in August 2018 at an HDFC co-op on St. Nicholas Avenue in Harlem. The remainder of the projects will be installed by Grid City Energy starting in October.

S.U.N. distinguishes itself from other solar programs by targeting affordable housing. Solarize campaigns organize homeowners into purchasing groups to negotiate discounted transparent pricing from a solar company and install solar at the same time. Since 2009 there have been dozens of successful solarize campaigns across the country, most typically in suburban areas with single-family homes, but S.U.N. is the first successful solar purchasing group specifically for multi-family affordable housing, where the barriers to solar adoption are greatest and the cost savings are most needed. WE ACT and its partners are focusing on HDFC cooperatives because they are a unique form of affordable housing in New York City that provides homeownership opportunities to low and moderate income families, and there is a high density of HDFCs in Northern Manhattan.

“The S.U.N. campaign is the first successful implementation of the solarize model on multi-family buildings in a high-density urban area. Replicating this innovative model in similar neighborhoods is crucial to expanding access to solar energy to urban communities, particularly low and moderate income communities of color who face disproportionately higher energy cost burden and are more likely to be exposed to environmental issues. Solar energy is a solution that not only provides energy savings, but also addresses environmental and equity issues in urban communities,” said Juan Parra, Program Manager at Solar One.

“The reason we decided to pursue HDFCs is because these low-income co-ops are predominantly owned by people of color, who are often overlooked by mainstream efforts to address climate change even though they shoulder a disproportionate burden of global warming,” explained Cecil Corbin-Mark, Deputy Director and Director of Policy Initiatives at WE ACT for Environmental Justice. “The program was born out Northern Manhattan residents’ desire to combat climate change, and the fact that the costs savings bolster the long-term affordability of these HDFCs – which also helps stave off displacement and gentrification in these communities – makes it even more attractive for all involved.”

The S.U.N. installations will produce power for building common areas (hallways and elevators), reducing operating expenses for the co-ops. In some cases, the solar power will be distributed to individual apartments via community shared solar, directly reducing electricity costs for residents. The 900 residents of these 11 buildings will receive an estimated combined savings of $62,000 over the first year after installation and over $1.7 MM in savings over the solar installations’ 25-year life. These savings will enable the participating buildings to reallocate funds for building maintenance and reserves, providing the co-ops with financial security and helping them maintain long-term affordability for residents of the HDFCs.

The committed solar projects in this campaign will offset an estimated 4,117 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, which will reduce the local carbon footprint and help combat climate change. It will also reduce demand for electricity from local power plants, which helps reduce local air pollution.

In addition, the S.U.N. program has provided solar training to more than 100 Northern Manhattan residents, and Grid City Energy, the selected solar installer, has committed to hiring local workers for these projects. WE ACT has been providing free worker training since 2012, funded by the New York State Department of Labor, and started offering free solar installation training in 2018 in partnership with Solar One as part of the S.U.N. program.

“Climate change is a threat multiplier, in that it builds upon layers of existing challenges – including public health, economic, and racial injustices,” added Corbin-Mark. “To ensure a just transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, and help improve the overall health of the community, it is essential that programs such as Solar Uptown Now include worker training and job opportunities for local residents – which is something the community demanded, and we built in to the program.”

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