Equality in Energy: Community Solar in NYC

As we increase awareness of the environmental impacts of generating electricity in dirty power plants, the demand for alternative energy sources has grown across the U.S. and New York State. With this growing interest in renewable energy, it’s important to invest in programs that make these projects accessible to all communities.

The benefits of Community Solar are now being recognized across the nation, including in New York.  Community Solar is a solar power system whose electricity is shared by more than one household. It expands solar energy in communities where many have traditionally lacked access.

How does Community Solar work? There are four parts comprising the model. A host/building owner offers a part of their property to house solar panels. A sponsor then implements and operates the solar panels, and sells the energy to a utility (electricity providers such as Con Edison in NYC). Next, customers sign-up to receive the energy from the utility and get metering credits on their energy bills, depending on the size of the group and the amount of energy used.

In New York City, solar energy is now accessible to apartment renters or owners without solar panels. New Yorkers living in apartments previously faced obstacles when considering switching to solar energy, including not owning a rooftop space suitable for the placement of solar panels. With the introduction of Community Solar, however, people are finding it easier to partake in the switch to renewable energy as they join communities with properties that are appropriate for solar power. In fact, citizens in Manhattan can now receive clean, solar energy from neighboring boroughs. The New York State Energy Research and Development and Sustainable CUNY have released city-wide lists of groups that facilitate Community Solar.

One of these groups, Solarize NYC, is working with the Uptown Manhattan community to educate residents about the benefits of Community Solar and help them chose solar installation companies.  Combining residents’ purchasing power expands their access to solar and reduces prices through competition.

Another obstacle that some may face when considering installing solar panels on a roof is funding. The financial incentives of Community Solar help provide equal access to solar power regardless of income and have been gaining recognition for increased access in lower-income communities. A new plan recently approved by the NYS Public Service Commission allows low-income families who normally receive utility bill discounts to use those discounts to pay community solar subscription fees. This allows some families to receive community solar energy at a reduced price.

The positive impacts of Community Solar are unmistakable – deriving electricity from solar power instead of traditional power plants helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to its environmental advantages, Community Solar also adds social and economic benefits to the energy market. A Community Solar system offers not only bring financial incentives to hosts for installing solar panels, but also to customers of all economic backgrounds. Though many Community Solar groups have initial membership or “subscription” fees, all customers are ultimately discounted on their electricity bills.

Only one question remains – how long until all of NYC is powered by Community Solar? NYLCV will continue to work for expansion of Community Solar in order to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to bring environmental justice benefits to low-income New Yorkers.