Solar power in New York City has a tony reputation.
Here in the Big Apple, where solar can eventually supply one-seventh of the city’s power, we like to show off the building-integrated photovoltaics at the luxury Visionaire, in Battery Park City. Or the 20 kilowatts on the roof at the Atelier, another luxury development, in Midtown.
But one of the fastest growing sectors for residential solar in the city is affordable housing—housing built with the budgetary and social service needs of lower-income residents in mind. “As solar costs continue to decrease, innovative approaches are being used to bring more people access to clean energy,” says Tom Osdoba, Vice President of Green Initiatives at Enterprise Community Partners, which helps develop and preserve affordable housing nationwide.
That growth is in evidence this week, as tenants move into the new Gateway Elton, a 197-unit affordable housing development in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood. “You can see the panels from the street,” Aaron Koffman of the Hudson Companies Inc. says proudly. With the Brooklyn-based non-profit CAMBA, Hudson developed the complex. At 214 kilowatts, Gateway Elton’s solar array is the largest residential array in all of New York state. In my borough, Brooklyn. Fantastic!
Hudson Companies and CAMBA built Gateway Elton green—it’s LEED Silver and Energy Star certified—with its intended tenants in mind. “East New York has the one of the worst asthma rates in the entire city,” Koffman explains. To improve indoor air quality and the breathing of its residents, the builders used VOC-free paints and no off-gassing vinyl in construction. There are Energy Star appliances and dual-flush, water-saving toilets. “We understand where we’re building,” says Koffman, “and don’t want to do anything to negatively impact people’s health.” The solar was icing on the cake. “In New York City, roofs can have lots of obstructions that make solar less effective,” Koffman says. “But with Gateway Elton, we decided that since we had the height and the lack of obstructions, we were just going for it.”
Tenants in the building have incomes below 60 percent of the area’s median income—$46,080 for a family of four. They pay a fixed percentage of their income as rent. The solar, which will supply two-thirds of the electricity used in building common areas, will help keep Gateway Elton affordable for the management company and residents alike. “We’re projecting full payback for the system in five to six years,” Koffman says. The system should last for at least 25, so savings after that are pure gravy.
The Gateway Elton solar array was built with support from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which also helped underwrite the building’s energy-efficiency measures. (Solar and energy efficiency make a great combination, by the way. Efficiency measures lower buildings’ energy needs, meaning more of them can be met by a rooftop solar array. For owners of single-family homes, efficiency can reduce the amount of solar that needs to be installed and can further cut homeowners’ costs.) A 30 percent federal tax credit also helped with the Gateway upfront investment.
Incentives such as these have helped drive incredible price drops in installed solar in recent years. Between January 2011 and June 2012 alone, those prices fell by 14 to 21 percent nationwide. And since then, costs have continued to decline. They should fall even further here in New York, thanks to Governor Cuomo’s recent, forward-looking decision to extend the New York Sun Initiative for another 10 years. The Sun Initiative is designed build the state’s solar industry and lower the so-called “balance of system” costs that can account for two-thirds of solar’s installed price.
All that is great news for low-income residents like those at Gateway Elton. They spend a significantly larger percentage of their income on energy than middle- and higher-income individuals and families. And they’re more likely to live in neighborhoods where asthma rates are high, thanks, in part, to power-plant pollution.
Gateway isn’t the first New York City affordable housing complex on which Hudson Companies has built solar. In 2011, it put what was then “the largest solar array on a residential building in New York State”—80.5 kW—atop its Dumont Green, a 176 unit affordable housing complex, also in East New York.
Now, the company is thinking big, with two more solar-roofed, affordable-housing developments in the works right next to Gateway. “Our goal,” says Koffman, “is to get to a megawatt on Elton Street.”