In an effort to reduce their carbon footprints, homeowners across New York City are increasingly turning to solar energy, with Brooklyn brownstone owners hurrying to catch up with their counterparts in Queens and Staten Island.
Because solar panels are generally designed for sloped roofs, Brooklyn’s many flat-topped rowhouses have put the borough at a disadvantage, but new technology is starting to change that.
“Older buildings are energy-wasters,” said Alfred Ling, 60, whose roof in Park Slope, on his four-story, three-unit rowhouse, is about half-covered in solar panels. His neighbors have similar setups.
“We should be trying to increase our use of renewable energy, one building at a time,” Mr. Ling said. “And I’m doing my part.” Steeply discounted power bills are also an incentive.
Queens currently has the largest number of solar-powered homes, with more than 7,000 — most of them single-family houses, according to information from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which tracks the industry. Staten Island is a close second.
Those numbers should not come as a surprise, solar companies say. Most panels are designed for sloped roofs, to maximize absorption of the sun’s rays — and because most houses across the country can accommodate them. Queens and Staten Island, which have many areas that are borderline suburban, offer plenty of those surfaces on single-family houses.
But despite scattered efforts through the years, solar panels have been a tougher sell in densely settled precincts in Manhattan and Brooklyn, where flat-roofed apartment buildings are the norm.
Manhattan, shadowed by skyscrapers, still lags in the residential department, with about 500 installations, according to the state agency. That makes Brooklyn, with 3,100, many of them added in the last few years, so notable. The borough’s typical stock includes rowhouses with a few units occupied by a landlord and a couple of tenants.
In northern climates, solar panels usually need to be tilted, to capture the most light; panels that sit flush on squared-off roofs usually don’t generate enough power, according to solar companies. And New York’s building codes stipulate that firefighters must have enough room to navigate in case of emergencies, which means glass can’t entirely cover roofs.
For years, there wasn’t much brownstone-worthy equipment. Sunrun, a 12-year-old national provider that sells and leases solar energy systems, for instance, doesn’t currently offer any flat-roof-compatible systems, a spokesman said, although some Brooklynites with angled eaves are customers.
Brooklyn SolarWorks, a four-year-old company based in Gowanus, which does most of its work in the borough, set out to fill that void.
Its “canopy” system offers tilted panels mounted eight feet in the air, which leaves enough space for a firefighter to swing an ax underneath, according to the company. Interest in the product and others offered by Brooklyn SolarWorks seems to have ramped up quickly.
In the brownstone-packed neighborhood of Park Slope, for example, Brooklyn SolarWorks installed solar systems at 13 addresses in 2016, the year after the company was founded. In 2017, the company did 23 installations there, and in 2018, it did 58, according to the state energy authority.
While established areas may have been the first to warm to the idea of solar power, up-and-coming neighborhoods seem to be coming around too.
In sections of gentrifying Prospect Heights and Clinton Hill, not a single panel was added by Brooklyn SolarWorks in 2016. But the next year saw 16 systems installed, followed by 15 in 2018 and 16 so far this year, according to the state data. Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick and Red Hook have also seen a significant increase in solar energy in the last couple of years.
The canopy, which is used in many of the Brooklyn jobs, “is helping us solarize a place that is just screaming for us,” said T.R. Ludwig, the chief executive officer. Other companies that offer similar systems include SunPower, 1st Light Energy and Kamtech Restoration Corp.
But the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission has rejected some canopies because their elevated height makes them too visible from the sidewalk, according to Brooklyn SolarWorks.
Architecture is one hurdle. Another is upfront cost. The average price of installation in brownstone Brooklyn over the past decade has hovered around $55,000. Sunrun charges $22,000 to buy a system for a typical slope-roofed Brooklyn building.
But government incentives can significantly reduce those costs. Mr. Ling recouped about $41,000 of his $65,000 investment through a series of federal, state and city rebates and credits. Even with tax breaks and power-bill discounts, though, a break-even point can be distant. Mr. Ling, who installed his system in 2016, predicts his will come in about a decade.
Some months, when the sun is shining and excess energy generated by panels is funneled back into the power grid, users can enjoy zero energy costs. But monthly bills, albeit small, still have to be paid. Con Edison, the city utility, charges regular fees for use of its equipment, which is needed in part to collect that unused energy.
And it’s not always clear that solar equipment is a worthwhile capital improvement, said Jonathan J. Miller, the president of the real estate appraisal firm Miller Samuel. “While solar panels can potentially provide a value add,” Mr. Miller wrote in an email, “the buyer has to agree to continue payments” — if the equipment is leased — “from the previous owner. It’s an additional layer of complexity and cost that has the potential to be a deterrent for the buyer.”
For Brooklyn homeowners with pointy roofs in places like Bay Ridge, Sunrun may be a way to go. The company, which sells its products through Costco and other retailers, is popular with those who prefer to rent equipment to lower their initial outlay.
It costs nothing to install a Sunrun system, although homeowners pay a monthly rental fee of about $80 in New York, on top of a $40 utility bill, for a total of $120, a company spokesman said, noting that a typical utility bill for a Brooklyn house without solar panels is $135.
For those who don’t own their own houses — the majority of New Yorkers — solar power is available through companies that have created community solar networks that can connect off-site panels to scattered households.
Daroga Power, a four-year-old solar developer, activated one such network in December. The network now has 170 residential accounts, most in Brooklyn, said David Matt, a company principal. That network’s panels are arrayed across two industrial buildings in East New York, while customers live throughout the city.
“What sold me was that it’s better for the environment,” said Eric Zion, 34, whose one-bedroom rental on the Upper East Side has been plugged into the Daroga system for a year. “But who wouldn’t want cheaper bills?”
The savings are about 15 percent, Mr. Zion said.
Next, Daroga hopes to create similar localized networks on top of large rentals and co-ops, although finding roofs unencumbered by vents is difficult, Mr. Matt said. And not every co-op board wants large-scale equipment in a space that could someday be used for a terrace or outdoor kitchen.
There opportunities for low-income New Yorkers, too. Here Comes Solar, a division of the nonprofit advocacy group Solar One, is helping design a solar system for the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park that will serve 175 renters, said Noah Ginsburg, the division’s director. Here Comes Solar is also planning projects in the Bronx, a borough that, like Manhattan, has been slow to embrace solar power, with just 1,500 residential installations.
“Solar is not something we can do if low-income folks are not part of the solution,” Mr. Ginsburg said.