Here Comes Solar: residential solar comes to NYC

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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.

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. [pullquote align=”right”]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.[/pullquote]

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.[pullquote align=”right”]New policies can shape a home-grown clean tech sector in New York, with ideas and products sent worldwide.[/pullquote]

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.

Photo: Solar installation on an apartment building in lower Manhattan, Courtesy of Here Comes Solar