An affordable housing co-op in West Harlem is weighing their options — change over to electric heat pumps, install rooftop solar or both. It’s an energy decision they must make in the next couple of years when their boiler that runs on fuel oil #2 needs to be replaced, as new climate laws take effect.

For these homeowners, who are all low-to-middle income, climate change mitigation feels like both a luxury and a necessity for the 20-unit building on West 156th Street. Government incentives and tax credits can cover more than 70% of the upfront costs of solar panels, yet customers still end up paying tens of thousands of dollars for installations.

But co-op board member Estelle Bajou doesn’t want to wait or be left out of the clean energy transition just because she has to “make every dollar count on a low income.”

“When you’re low-income, there’s an expectation that you won’t be able to afford to go green,” said Bajou.

Looking for alternatives, a growing number of leaseholders, small businesses or even low-income homeowners like Bajou are turning to community solar programs. Renewables developers compare the concept to Netflix — a subscription in one of these programs entitles a person to a share of a solar farm or a rooftop installation rather than outright ownership. This share of renewable power generation offsets a customer’s own electricity usage, reflected directly on their utility bill.

They also get to contribute individually toward mitigating climate change. Every megawatt of solar power generates emissions-free electricity that could replace a megawatt of natural gas, which releases 200 kilograms of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

This option also allows energy customers to choose solar power without paying for the upfront costs, construction and commitment. Out-of-pocket expenses for household solar installations range from $15,000 to $22,000 in New York City, according to market analysts at EnergySage.

In March, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced that more 1 gigawatts of community solar had been installed across New York, which could power more than 200,000 homes every year. More than 700 projects are in the works, she said, which would add up to another 2.3 gigawatts of power toward the state’s goal of building 10 gigawatts by 2030.

Those homeowners will save up to $75,000 in energy costs over 20 years, yet it can take up to eight years to break even. But most New Yorkers don’t even own their own roofs, as nearly 70% rent, so they can’t install solar panels to harness the sun’s power.

In February, Bajou’s building enrolled in community solar for its common area energy usage. The signup process can be done online in a few minutes with a private solar company that has an agreement with Con Edison. The West Harlem co-op has a guaranteed discount of at least 10% in savings compared to what they previously paid the local power provider, a standard benefit for most subscriptions.

Bajou said it was a way of getting renewable energy immediately and without having to budget for a capital project or deal with construction.

“You don’t feel like you have as much power to influence policy makers, and joining this collective [community solar] does feel really good,” Bajou said.

The grassroots rise of community solar

Many community solar subscribers find it liberating, a way of making their voices heard. Surveys consistently show that the majority of New York City adults want climate-friendly energy upgrades. And for some, community solar is the only way to get clean energy.

Gabriel Jamison went door-to-door with Solar Pioneers, an advocacy group that trains and educates local youths to be “renewable energy ambassadors,” in his Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville. It’s an area where the median household income is less than half of the citywide median and more than one-third of its residents live in poverty.

Jamison said that getting solar panels would be the farthest thing from any of his neighbors’ minds, but Solar Pioneers managed to help get nearly 4,000 residents enrolled in solar programs over a two-year period that began in 2017. Despite its popularity, the program is on hiatus due to health concerns over the pandemic and going door-to-door.

“When people think of Brownsville, they don’t think of solar power,” said Jamison as he pointed at rows and rows of homes with rooftop solar panels and their white utility boxes by the front doors. “But when we went door-to-door and educated the people about renewable energy, climate change and that they could save money without spending extra, it just made sense to them.”

The reason for its success was two-fold. Jamison said that people were won over by the positive youth involvement. Then, they also liked the savings on their monthly energy bill without any out-of-pocket costs or big contractual commitments.

There’s no point if we achieve our goal of solar deployment by ignoring a large fraction of our society.

Max Zhang, Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability

“There’s no point if we achieve our goal of solar deployment by ignoring a large fraction of our society,” said Max Zhang, engineering professor and director at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. “The energy transition needs to be taking place in an equitable way, and I think community solar plays a very crucial role.”

Last year was a record-setting year for installing community solar nationwide and in the state of New York, according to a report from Wood MacKenzie, a global research consultant for natural resources and power. Their analysis also shows that community solar’s energy output doubled in New York from 2019 to 2021.

The Empire State has consistently ranked in the top 10 states for building solar, yet two-thirds of its installations are small scale, producing less than 1 megawatt. (1,000 megawatts equals 1 gigawatt). This patchwork of smaller farms are the basis for community solar, which accounted for nearly 450 megawatts built in 2021. That’s enough to power more than 80,000 additional homes every year.

“I can't think of any disadvantage [for community solar],” said Dunbar Birnie, an engineering professor at Rutgers University. “It's allowing more solar. It's allowing more people to be connected to solar. It's a good thing.”

A solar state of mind

The Wood Mackenzie’s report found that growth of solar in the U.S. was tied to the success of state-level programs, and more states could increase their community programs by offering big financial incentives to motivate energy consumers to switch.

“When you’re pinching pennies to make ends meet, it still mattered to me for many years to try and minimize my footprint as best I can,” Bajou said. “Community solar was a no-brainer. We didn't have to install solar panels to be part of the green energy community.”

So far, New York has installed almost 3.6 gigawatts of total solar panels, enough to power about 600,000 homes, just over 3% of the state’s electrical needs. With costs dropping by half over the last decade, the Solar Energy Industries Association projects almost 5 gigawatts of additional solar will be built over the next five years. In the past, these installations were residential and commercial, but community solar has accounted for more than half the installations since 2020.

Community solar could make an even bigger dent in the region’s solar goal, according to David Magid, managing partner at YSG, a solar developer with a portfolio spread over nine states, a substantial portion in New York. While incentives for building more solar are attractive, securing those benefits requires at least $500,000 — between project permit fees and executing agreements from local power companies. Magid said those costs can reach millions of dollars.

Additional infrastructure is also needed, according to Magid. Nearly all of the space available to build solar farms is outside the city and upstate, which creates a need for transmission and distribution power lines, but without an additional cost to ratepayers. According to the New York Comptroller, the boroughs have installed about a third of its goal of running at least 1 gigawatt of solar power by 2030.

Status of NYC's goal to reach 1,000 megawatts of solar power by 2030, as of June 26th, 2022.

Status of NYC's goal to reach 1,000 megawatts of solar power by 2030, as of June 26th, 2022.

Status of NYC's goal to reach 1,000 megawatts of solar power by 2030, as of June 26th, 2022.
NYC Comptroller's Office

Another barrier is new regulations for the ever-emerging solar market. This March, the U.S. Department of Commerce launched an investigation into whether China-based suppliers are circumventing tariffs and pollution laws by routing their production lines through Southeast Asian countries. Wood MacKenzie believes that community solar could lose momentum this year due to this investigation and long timelines around policymaking.

“Building out additional transmission and distribution lines would help this grid really work in a smart function,” Magid said, referring to the concept of being able to automatically switch the grid from one power source to another. He said doing so would increase the effectiveness and efficiency of a renewables-centric grid, which needs to move “power in strategic areas at certain times of the day where there's more value for it.”

With just over seven years left to change more than 70% of New York State’s electricity usage to renewable sources, experts across the industry believe it’s achievable — but not at the current rate of adoption.

Another view of the community solar project atop SoFive Arena in Brownsville.

Another view of the community solar project atop SoFive Arena in Brownsville.

Another view of the community solar project atop SoFive Arena in Brownsville.
Courtesy of YSG

Birnie from Rutgers said this would require an all-hands-on-deck approach to accelerate solar projects. Community solar could provide the means for residents and businesses alike to impact change by subscribing and creating demand..

“For a lot of folks, climate change is an overwhelming topic, and it's very real, but fortunately the solutions are real, too, and they're accessible more than ever,” said Noah Ginsburg, a program director at Solar1, an organization that assists New Yorkers in navigating their options for renewable energy. “Solar is something that we can do here and now, and with community solar, anyone can really sign up.”