Here Comes Solar: residential solar comes to NYC


Chris Nei­dl is an expert in the rapid­ly grow­ing field of solar ener­gy and dis­tri­b­u­tion. He cur­rent­ly directs Here Comes Solar, which encour­ages solar adop­tion in New York and is a com­mu­ni­ty ini­tia­tive of the sus­tain­abil­i­ty non­prof­it Solar One. Chris also has had over four years of expe­ri­ence mak­ing off-grid solar acces­si­ble in India as the South Asia Pro­gram Man­ager of Arc Finance, Ltd, a non­prof­it that con­nects micro­fi­nance and rural ener­gy sec­tors. Pri­or to his stint in India, Chris served as the Advo­ca­cy and Com­mu­ni­ty Out­reach Coor­di­na­tor at Solar One.

Rowan Wu had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to ask Chris about the future of solar on a local and glob­al scale, and how New York City and India can serve as lead­ers in adapt­ing their eco­nom­ic and ener­gy sec­tors to become more sus­tain­able:

Tell us about Here Comes Solar’s work in New York; what do you focus on?

We’re inter­est­ed in how to over­come chal­lenges in the res­i­den­tial mar­ket where there is high poten­tial for solar. Here Comes Solar focus­es on row hous­es, espe­cial­ly flat-roofed ones, one to four fam­i­ly pri­vate homes, mul­ti-fam­i­ly con­dos, and afford­able hous­ing run by non­prof­its.

Why do we choose those par­tic­u­lar types of build­ings? In res­i­den­tial New York City, some areas have seen record growth, some of fastest growth in the coun­try. Among the­se areas are Staten Island and the far reach­es of the bor­oughs. Because they’re more sub­ur­ban in char­ac­ter and have larg­er roofs, they’re eas­ier to work with com­pared to the brown­stones in Brook­lyn which are more restric­tive because they cut away at the space you can work with.

Even though there’s demand for solar on small­er roofs, like brown­stones, solar installers aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly inter­est­ed in installing pan­els there. It’s lots of work, has a lot of uncer­tain­ty, and tends to be low rev­enue per job.

So instead of work­ing with indi­vid­u­al homes, our pro­gram iden­ti­fies groups of neigh­bors in the imme­di­ate area and groups them togeth­er to do a cumu­la­tive site assess­ment to ver­i­fy if they can do solar in first place. This enables installers to bid on groups of projects through a web­site – we use an online bid­ding plat­form called Sun­block. The­se two steps change the val­ue propo­si­tion, because poten­tial installers can offer more com­pet­i­tive bids and we can attract larg­er solar installers who can do solar for cheap­er because of the scale.

With our pro­gram there’s great poten­tial, but the process of get­ting solar done is dif­fi­cult – get­ting any­thing done in New York City is hard. The fire code lim­its the roofs we can do it on. The fire depart­ment won’t change the pol­i­cy, but design solu­tions around fire codes can solve the­se issues.

For exam­ple, if the fire depart­ment requires clear space on the roof that we can’t put solar pan­els on, can we come up with a form of rack­ing to move part of the pan­els in the instance of fire? Can we build above fire code require­ments?

Look­ing into ways to design around this pol­i­cy prob­lem can mas­sive­ly increase the amount of homes that can do solar, and the amount of solar pow­er we pro­duce in the city.

Solar gen­er­ates pow­er dur­ing the day, and sends it to the grid, but what about stor­age for pow­er at night?

Bat­ter­ies are an impor­tant solu­tion to stor­ing ener­gy on the grid and stor­ing solar to use at night. We’re see­ing new devel­op­ments com­ing pret­ty quick­ly.

[Note Tesla’s new atten­tion-get­ting home bat­tery sys­tem. WIRED dis­cuss­es the per­for­mance of the Tes­la bat­tery here. For per­spec­tive on the scale need­ed, see solar plus stor­age sys­tems com­pared with our entire ener­gy demand. But some ana­lysts see the field devel­op­ing so rapid­ly that the Tes­la bat­tery is only a start. — Ed.]

PV solar pan­els, from 2010 to 2015, have dropped in price by about 80%, and the same could hap­pen to bat­ter­ies, espe­cial­ly in New York where elec­tric­i­ty prices are high and util­i­ties are increas­ing­ly incen­tivized to sub­si­dize bat­ter­ies to sup­port dis­tri­b­u­tion. It would make the sys­tem more resilient, espe­cial­ly as more peo­ple are inter­est­ed in resilien­cy and back­up pow­er in the wake of Sandy. 

We don’t have to wait to fol­low Cal­i­for­nia, New York can be a lead­er, because of a change in how util­i­ties are com­pen­sat­ed. We’re shift­ing [utility’s] com­pen­sa­tion away from sell­ing elec­trons. Dis­trib­ut­ed gen­er­a­tion like solar will be a part of that. Bat­ter­ies make solar more pre­dictable; it’s a real­ly excit­ing thing that could be hap­pen­ing, but like I said, it’s also New York. Try­ing to get the fire depart­ment and build­ings to actu­al­ly devel­op per­mit­ting require­ments for that and sign­ing off on it can be time con­sum­ing.

Solar installation on an apartment building in NYC. (Courtesy Here Comes Solar)

Solar instal­la­tion on an apart­ment build­ing in low­er Man­hat­tan. (Cour­tesy Here Comes Solar)

What’s the ben­e­fit of dis­trib­ut­ed gen­er­a­tion?

Say it’s three o’clock in the after­noon in July, air con­di­tion­ers are at their max, New York City hits the 13 gigawatt peak demand for pow­er, and that’s when the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a pow­er fail­ure is high. It requires mas­sive invest­ments in the grid to accom­mo­date that peak demand. The peak may only total 20 hours over the whole year, but it means we still have to build up the sys­tem to avoid a black­out. All that invest­ment cost gets passed to ratepay­ers. 

Rather than cen­tral­ized gen­er­a­tion in the form of a large pow­er plant with a huge megawatt scale that gen­er­ates pow­er and then dis­trib­utes it through a grid, dis­trib­ut­ed ener­gy is pro­duced by the user and locat­ed close to user. It brings all kinds of advan­tages to mak­ing grid more resilient. 

Let’s say you have solar on a roof that’s got a lit­tle bit of bat­tery stor­age with it. That’s elec­tric­i­ty that can be used imme­di­ate­ly by that build­ing or stored. It basi­cal­ly reduces in real time, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of fail­ure dur­ing peak demand, and reduces the long-term need to make those invest­ments. That’s why the state is real­ly inter­est­ed in it and how it can both save mon­ey and make the grid more resilient to pow­er out­ages. 

Given your expe­ri­ence work­ing with solar in India, does India’s pro­gress on solar have ben­e­fits for NYC and oth­er places around the globe? How are places like New York and India lead­ers in devel­op­ing clean ener­gy meth­ods? 

I got involved in solar a lit­tle over decade ago. I start­ed in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia where solar real­ly became avail­able for every­day peo­ple, albeit on small scale. That kind of launched solar in cer­tain way, and now it’s mov­ing for­ward by leaps and bounds. It doesn’t just hap­pen glob­al­ly, it real­ly hap­pens in par­tic­u­lar moments in time in par­tic­u­lar places.

When Japan and Ger­many adopt­ed feed-in tar­iffs [poli­cies that sup­port­ed solar], it caused solar to scale up, and prices to come down. We all ben­e­fit from that. Chi­na became a major pro­duc­er [and the price of PV pan­els dropped rapid­ly].

For me, it’s inter­est­ing to look at New York and to see if there are new break­throughs that will hap­pen in New York’s denser envi­ron­ment that will rever­ber­ate glob­al­ly.

A solar micro-grid in West Bengal, India. (Courtesy Chris Neidl)

A solar micro-grid in West Ben­gal, India. (Cour­tesy Chris Nei­dl)

Installing solar in Bihar State, India. (Courtesy Chris Neidl)

Installing solar in Bihar State, India. (Cour­tesy Chris Nei­dl)

It’s also inter­est­ing to see what India will bring to the future of solar. In India, you have an enor­mous coun­try where eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment is very fast and the major con­straint is unre­li­able elec­tric­i­ty or no elec­tric­i­ty in urban and rural areas.

India has a lot of coal reserves. But they also have ridicu­lous amounts of sun. The cost of devel­op­ing trans­mis­sion dis­tri­b­u­tion into rural areas is expen­sive, with a very high infra­struc­ture cost and a very low like­li­hood of recov­er­ing those costs because you’re dis­trib­ut­ing it to the most low-income peo­ple, who are the most expen­sive to col­lect mon­ey from. So, they are forced to look at dis­trib­ut­ed gen­er­a­tion like solar as a pri­ma­ry dri­ver of elec­tri­fi­ca­tion. 

You may, in fact, nev­er have rural India most­ly elec­tri­fied by a cen­tral­ized grid, but by the most cost-effec­tive ways: renew­able sources like solar or micro-hydro. The solar poten­tial is enor­mous. 

India is a real­ly excit­ing sto­ry because they want to call them­selves, under Prime Min­is­ter Modi, “the first solar-pow­ered super­pow­er.” What they mean by that is a place where you have renew­ables as a fun­da­men­tal, key way of gen­er­at­ing ener­gy for a large pop­u­la­tion. The prime min­is­ter is a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure for many rea­sons, but one thing he was able to do when he was Chief Min­is­ter of Gujarat was push solar for­ward big time, Gujarat State was the nation­al lead­er. He clear­ly had big ambi­tions for it, so we’ll see if he can trans­late that on a nation­al lev­el.

India is a total out­lier in so many ways, so it’s hard to pre­dict how things will play out. One thing for sure, their lack of a reli­able sup­ply of elec­tric­i­ty is one of the biggest con­straints on their econ­o­my at this point.

When they talk about solar ener­gy in India, increas­ing­ly it’s not just in rela­tion to the con­ver­sa­tion about cli­mate change or the envi­ron­ment, it’s about how to solve the prob­lem of ener­gy access. Solar doesn’t require India to import fuel and increase their bal­ance of pay­ment, but it allows them to use a resource that the coun­try has an abun­dance of (it’s one of the sun­ni­est coun­tries in world), and that fits in with demo­graph­ics. Although urban­iza­tion rates are very high, most of the pop­u­la­tion lives in rural areas, and those are very dif­fi­cult to serve with cen­tral­ized infra­struc­ture. 

Solar pow­er in India is not just about respond­ing to cli­mate change, but about pro­vid­ing ener­gy in rural areas that don’t yet have any kind of pow­er.

You now have signs that this is a doable thing, because you have lead­er­ship at the top that’s push­ing for it. You have the real­ly dis­trib­ut­ed small scale stuff (solar charg­ing sys­tems, portable retail prod­ucts, solar home sys­tems) and micro grids (hot thing the­se days) where you gen­er­ate hubs of solar micro-grids that can have high­er lev­els of elec­tri­cal ser­vice made avail­able [in rural areas]. The­se can be man­aged at a region­al lev­el. They’re decen­tral­ized enough, but they have some of the larg­er ben­e­fits of cen­tral­iza­tion where you can start to get the forms of financ­ing that you would for larg­er cap­i­tal prod­ucts.

And India’s not the only one, you see inno­v­a­tive stuff hap­pen­ing in East Africa in the inte­gra­tion of mobile net­works and ener­gy ser­vices. The epi­cen­ter for that has been Kenya and Tan­za­nia. You have Bangladesh, which in the last decade has had incred­i­ble amounts of growth in solar home sys­tems. Almost two mil­lion house­holds have solar sys­tems that have been financed through the Marine Bank and there’s all sorts of inno­v­a­tive stuff hap­pen­ing in dif­fer­ent cen­ters and emerg­ing mar­kets. But India is mas­sive and can have a rip­ple effect in a way that many oth­er coun­tries in the devel­op­ing world can’t. 

How did you get the oppor­tu­ni­ty to work in India? 

I took a course in grad­u­ate school, at NYU, called “Solar and Devel­op­ment.” One of the instruc­tors worked for a non-prof­it called Arc Finance, which focus­es on increas­ing afford­abil­i­ty of off-grid ener­gy solu­tions through link­ages with micro­fi­nance and oth­er finan­cial mech­a­nisms. I was able to meet the founder and direc­tor of the orga­ni­za­tion through the course, and once that wrapped up I applied for a posi­tion and got it.

What would you rec­om­mend right now to some­one look­ing for a career in solar? 

Decide first what your main inter­est is, and go from there. Com­pared to when I start­ed over a decade ago, solar is now a very large and rapid­ly grow­ing mul­ti-bil­lion dol­lar sec­tor. Oppor­tu­ni­ties for get­ting into solar abound for peo­ple with all kinds of dif­fer­ent skills. My big advice would be: don’t wait. There is a job out there with your name on it. Just con­sid­er what your strengths and pri­ma­ry inter­ests are and that will lead you in the right direc­tion, be it for a solar com­pa­ny or financier; or in the pub­lic or non-prof­it sec­tors.

What does resilien­cy mean to you, and how is it relat­ed to sus­tain­abil­i­ty?

I was gone in India when Hur­ri­cane Sandy hap­pened. Resilien­cy wasn’t even part of the vocab­u­lary; when I left it was all “sus­tain­abil­i­ty, sus­tain­abil­i­ty, sus­tain­abil­i­ty.”

It was inter­est­ing to come back and dis­cov­er this new word in the lex­i­con and its sig­nif­i­cance. The point is, the pow­er of events and how they can reshape the game board. That’s been the obser­va­tion from a New York­er who moved away when Sandy hap­pened to come back and see how much that has per­me­at­ed the think­ing of every­day New York­ers, pub­lic pol­i­cy mak­ers, and so on.

Sus­tain­abil­i­ty was always the con­test­ed term in terms of what it actu­al­ly meant: was it defined around envi­ron­men­tal lines, or eco­nom­ic lines? It was an unre­solv­able debate about that. And resilien­cy is a lay­er of sus­tain­abil­i­ty, it’s direct­ly relat­ed to it. 

If some­thing is not resilient, it’s clear­ly not sus­tain­able. So, it’s not eclipsed the word sus­tain­abil­i­ty, it’s just anoth­er piece of pie.

It can also mean mul­ti­ple things, it can mean how do you with­stand and main­tain ser­vice in the wake of a weath­er event like Sandy? Or, how do you keep it going in the first place?

In exam­ples like the Solu­tions Project 100% renew­able pow­er plan, solar would be given pri­or­i­ty in the sun­nier parts of the coun­try, and be less of the mix here in New York State. Do you think solar can do more than their tar­get? Or, is it impor­tant to us for oth­er rea­sons such as indi­vid­u­al con­trol, resilien­cy for the grid, etc?

In recent years solar growth has far sur­passed esti­mates made by the IEA and oth­er ana­lysts. It will con­tin­ue to do so. Much of this relates to the inher­ent cre­ativ­i­ty of the tech­nol­o­gy, which results from its basic design char­ac­ter­is­tics. It’s mod­u­lar and has no mov­ing parts, requires no day-to-day oper­a­tion by the user and lasts a very, very long time.

As a result it can be wide­ly adopt­ed by many peo­ple in many dif­fer­ent con­texts. This diver­si­ty and acces­si­bil­i­ty unlocks enor­mous amounts of cre­ativ­i­ty in both the pri­vate sec­tor and pub­lic sec­tors, and, impor­tant­ly, in civil soci­ety. In the past five years, the real price of solar equip­ment has declined dra­mat­i­cal­ly as a result of increased scale dri­ven by most­ly Euro­pean demand and most­ly Chi­ne­se pro­duc­tion. At the same time, in many states — New York def­i­nite­ly includ­ed — the pol­i­cy and reg­u­la­to­ry con­text has evolved to sup­port rather than sup­press dis­trib­ut­ed gen­er­a­tion.

New poli­cies can shape a home-grown clean tech sec­tor in New York, with ideas and prod­ucts sent world­wide.

The­se con­di­tions are gen­er­at­ing new busi­ness mod­els and forms of col­lab­o­ra­tion that dri­ve tech­no­log­i­cal change, price reduc­tion and oth­er trans­for­ma­tions that indus­try prog­nos­ti­ca­tors – used to mod­el­ing around sta­ble cen­tral­ized gen­er­a­tion – are not well equipped to pre­dict. They will con­tin­ue to be increas­ing­ly wrong because they can­not mod­el around some­thing so dis­rup­tive, unpre­dictable and cre­ative. Don’t be fooled by those who point to today’s pie charts that bare­ly reg­is­ter solar. That can and will change very quick­ly. When it comes to solar, small is not small, small is very big because small can be very fast. As con­di­tions evolve, solar can be adopt­ed and imple­ment­ed by many peo­ple, very quick­ly. That’s not how pow­er plants are built. The­se days, here in New York, tra­di­tion­al pow­er plants take forever to build.

What about New York City’s “80 by 50” goal to reduce car­bon emis­sions 80% by 2050?

WIth that, they’re real­ly focus­ing on mak­ing build­ings more effi­cient, but there is a big renew­able ener­gy com­po­nent. In a sim­i­lar time frame, they want to have elec­tric­i­ty almost com­plete­ly from renew­able sources. 

We’ve come to a point where you can’t be a lead­er in this state or the city and not have an ambi­tious plan for renew­ables; that’s the nature of pol­i­tics in this city and in this state.

Regard­ing “80 by 50,” I think it’s total­ly doable. But aside from whether it’s polit­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble, I don’t think num­bers alone mean a lot. 

Some peo­ple were real­ly excit­ed when Pres­i­dent Oba­ma struck the deal with Chi­na to reduce emis­sions, but only look­ing at num­bers is the wrong way to look at it. Some­one told me that for Chi­na to meet their goal, they’ll need to add as much clean ener­gy capac­i­ty to their econ­o­my that they cur­rent­ly have in dirty capac­i­ty.

What hap­pens to the tech­nolo­gies along the way? What inno­va­tions hap­pen, what break­throughs occur along the way that end up mak­ing the ini­tial num­bers irrel­e­vant? Through that effort of mak­ing so much clean ener­gy come on line, you’re going to think of so many ways of dri­ving cost down and sup­port­ing inno­va­tion that the mar­ket will take over from there.

With “80 by 50,” New York has put a goal in place, and at same time New York is rapid­ly devel­op­ing a clean tech sec­tor to address the needs in New York. One of goals of New York State’s “Reform­ing the Ener­gy Vision” [REV] ini­tia­tive is not just to keep the grid sta­ble, but it’s to cul­ti­vate an inter­est­ing, glob­al­ly dom­i­nant clean tech sec­tor that serves the needs of cities in the future. [More about the REV here.]

It can give rise to a home-grown clean tech sec­tor that can devel­op inno­va­tions to accel­er­ate the path towards decar­boniz­ing our grid in ways we could have nev­er fore­seen.