The iconic New York City skyline does not typically include images of gleaming solar panels on skyscraper rooftops. There’s too little space, impractical roofs and far too much shade. But head uptown to Harlem or the Bronx, downtown to the Lower East Side or into the outer boroughs, and the skyline begins to change. Even the shadows of the new and absurdly tall “Billionaire’s Row” luxury towers (locally reviled and referred to as “matchsticks”) cannot reach into these neighborhoods. Only a few short years ago, imagining solar arrays on Manhattan rooftops was a fantasy, but that is starting to change.

For the past several decades, solar panels have been steadily sprouting on the rooftops of suburban homeowners and in large arrays covering former farmland, deserts and industrial roofs. Due in part to incomplete information, low-income urban communities, especially communities of color, were largely left out of the solar revolution. It was assumed solar was too impractical or costly, and installers had little desire to do business in difficult city conditions. But thanks to a small group of visionary nonprofits, forward-thinking installers and engaged residents demanding access to clean, affordable power, there is a developing trend toward affordable solar power in these communities.

At the center of this movement is the New York City nonprofit Solar One, whose mission is to make solar power accessible and affordable to all New Yorkers. Rather than looking to the Manhattan business centers like Midtown and Wall Street, the team at Solar One realized that there was plenty of roof space, ample sunlight and eager residents in working-class residential neighborhoods. Streets in these neighborhoods typically feature rows of modest six-story apartment buildings, and a quick trip to the rooftops of many of these buildings reveals abundant sunlight and ideal southern exposure.

A Solar Uptown Now installation in Harlem.

The team at Solar One realized that in order to prove the feasibility of solar for such communities, they had to first demonstrate the benefits to a variety of stakeholders, including building residents and owners, installers, community and non-profit organizations, and even city officials. It was clear that a dedicated team of technically knowledgeable individuals with strong people skills and a good deal of patience would be needed, and so the Here Comes Solar (HCS) program was formed.

Solar One and the HCS team created partnerships with a select group of NYC nonprofits that work with building owners and community members. These partners refer co-op owners and board members to the HCS team, which helps the owners understand that they could save money and increase property value with solar installations. Alternatively, a partner may host a workshop to help residents learn about solar costs, incentives and financing options and to connect them with the HCS team.

Once contact and interest have been established, meetings are held to discuss solar feasibility, budget, building needs and design considerations. For example, building owners may want to refurbish their roofs, or residents may want space for a roof deck. Throughout the process, the HCS team provides education, technical assistance, design and information about costs, incentives and financing. When the details are established, HCS helps the building owners solicit bids from qualified local solar companies and helps the board choose an installer. Since many of these projects are for Housing Development Fund Corporation(HDFC) affordable cooperatives, other community and city organizations are often part of the project team as well.

For example, a recent initiative, Solar Uptown Now (S.U.N.) is currently underway to bring solar power to 11 buildings in Harlem, with more coming. The project led by WE ACT for Environmental Justice is a collaboration with Solar One and several key partners including The Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB) and Solarize NYC.

A self-ballasted Solar Uptown system takes shape in the Bronx.

The S.U.N. campaign is the first successful solar group purchasing campaign that focuses on multifamily affordable housing in NYC.

“Replicating this innovative model in similar neighborhoods is crucial to expanding access to solar energy to urban communities, particularly low and moderate-income communities of color that face disproportionately higher energy cost burden and are more likely to be exposed to environmental issues,” said Solar One’s program manager Juan Parra. “Solar energy is a solution that not only provides energy savings, but also addresses environmental and equity issues in urban communities.”

One major reason why this all works in the end is the cost savings. As a nonprofit, Solar One is able to step in and alleviate much of the burden that is usually on the installer or building owners. Soft costs such as site analysis, preliminary design, owner education and customer acquisition are absorbed by Solar One, thus allowing installers to offer pricing that is up to 20% lower than would otherwise be possible. And since many of these programs include multiple projects on the same timeline and in close geographic proximity, installers are able to save money on costs like permitting, equipment rental and installation.

One of the most exciting facets of this model is that the residents of the communities are so deeply engaged. Rather than waiting for solar to come to working-class neighborhoods, communities are taking matters into their own hands.

Brandon Lee Yaw, a training program graduate, working on a Solar Uptown Now project.

After a critical mass of HDFC cooperatives elected to move forward with solar projects, Solar One prepared and distributed a request for proposals among qualified local solar companies. Several bids were received and evaluated by representatives of the buildings, who ultimately chose 770 Electric as their solar installer. In addition to the competitive pricing and high-quality equipment and design, the building owners mandated that the chosen installer hire local workers trained by WE ACT and Solar One’s Green Workforce Training Program. Through a partnership with WE ACT, Solar One trained more than 100 unemployed and underemployed Northern Manhattan residents. Five of them have already landed solar jobs—including two who are working with 770 Electric on the S.U.N. installations.

“To ensure a just transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, and help improve the overall health of the community, it is essential that programs such as Solar Uptown Now include worker training and job opportunities for local residents—which is something the community demanded, and we built in to the program,” said Cecil Corbin-Mark, deputy director and director of policy initiatives at WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

The model on the whole appears to be working, and other projects are underway in Brooklyn, the Lower East Side, the Bronx and more.

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