New York City is not the easiest place to install solar. As the most densely populated urban area in the United States, it is expensive and logistically difficult to do any sort of major construction work there. Add to that the shadows cast by many tall buildings, a city bureaucracy relatively new to solar and unique set-backs in the fire code, and you have a real challenge.
Nonetheless, yesterday the city hit a major milestone, with utility Con Edison announcing that its customers have installed 101 MW of solar PV in 9,700 projects across the city. ConEdison did not provide a breakdown of where these installations are, but data previously released by the state shows the large majority of capacity in the less densely built-up boroughs of Staten Island and Queens, with Brooklyn a distant third and Manhattan hosting only around 2% of the total.
A dashboard for the state’s NY-Sun incentive program also shows that the large majority of NYC’s installed solar capacity is residential. Commercial installations are on only the second of 13 blocks of incentives with less than 20 MW installed, whereas more than 80 MW of residential solar has claimed incentives.
100 MW is 10% of the way to the 1 GW goal set by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio last September. However, with a strong push under state governor Andrew Cuomo, it is clear that other regions are far ahead. Suffolk and Nassau Counties, which comprise most of Long Island, had reached 280 MW of installed residential solar six months ago, and the region went through its NY-Sun incentives for residential systems last April.
100 MW is also less than 1% of the potential solar capacity that the city’s roofs could technically host, as estimated by online solar mapping tools including Google’s Project Sunroof and Mapdwell.
There are likely several reasons for New York City’s limited progress versus the rest of the state. While installers have reported some progress with the painfully slow and antiquated process of getting permits from the city’s Department of Buildings, there is still the matter of a six-foot (2-meter) setback from the edges of flat roofs in the city as mandated by the New York City Fire Department.
This makes PV systems impractical for many roofs, particularly in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and significantly reduces the amount of the city’s technical capacity that could be achieved under existing policy.
However, the solar that is going online in New York City fills a need that will only grow. New York’s 2 GW Indian Point nuclear power plant is scheduled to shut down by 2021, and plans to import power from hydroelectric dams in Canada could be stymied by local opposition to transmission infrastructure. This means that New York may need to be much more energy self-sufficient in the future.