On a bright August afternoon in Brooklyn, the sun beat down fiercely as New Yorkers scrambled for slivers of shade. Except for Shaugh Dolcy. The 43-year-old software developer proudly basked in the rays on the roof of his four-story building and showed off the brand-new solar rig that glistened brightly against the blue sky.
Dolcy’s wife, Tamara, chased their six-year-old son, Rhys, through the expanse of silver and black panels, some resting at a slant a few feet above the rooftop and others towering on 20-foot poles, creating an impressive metal canopy.
The solar project, which was installed in June, is now powering all eight apartments and the common areas in the building, an affordable-housing co-op. It has the potential to lower the residents’ electricity bills from over $100 a month to a mere $15, said Annabelle Heckler, another tenant.
“We’re all really excited about it,” she said. A sunny day turns their rooftop into a mini-power plant, and means less money goes to Con Edison.
Affordable-housing units aren’t generally the places you’d expect solar energy, as the cost of buying and installing the technology has associated it with eco-conscious suburbanites who have cash to burn. But low-income communities stand to benefit the most from the decrease in energy costs solar energy provides, said Stephan Roundtree, environmental policy and advocacy coordinator for WE ACT, an environmental justice organization in northern Manhattan. Electricity is the highest bill low-income residents in the neighborhood pay after rent, he said.
Installing community solar—a collection of panels used by multiple households—was a simple process under net metering, which enables tenants like Dolcy and Heckler to sell excess electricity their solar-energy system produces to utilities for credit on their bill. However, several states, including New York, have either ended it or weakened it, under political pressure from large utilities.
In September 2017, the state Public Service Commission approved a new policy called Value of Distributed Energy Resources (VDER), which will phase out reverse metering in favor of a system where utilities set how much they will pay based on when and where the solar panels provide electricity to the grid. The commission proposed it after receiving criticism from utility companies that net metering oversimplifies solar pricing mechanisms.
New York has already lost over $800 million in investments and thousands of potential green-collar jobs since VDER was put into effect, said Chris Carrick, the energy program manager for the five-county Central New York Regional Planning and Development Board. A co-op in Inwood that wanted to install a similar system abandoned it after the value of solar energy decreased.
Advocates worry that VDER will continue to have crippling effects on New York’s growing solar industry and vow to make this a campaign issue if Gov. Andrew Cuomo fails to address it.
The governor said in 2015 that clean power would become available to all New Yorkers “regardless of their zip code or income.” But his administration has yet to come up with a plan to reinstate net metering, which advocates say is crucial for keeping solar prices affordable, predictable and easy to understand.
“We need to acknowledge that utilities have been pushing back against net metering,” said Carrick. Con Edison, one of the largest utilities in the U.S., was one of the companies that submitted comments against net metering and in favor of VDER to the state Department of Public Service as early as 2016. The Con Edison Employees PAC has donated thousands of dollars to Cuomo’s election campaigns over the past decade, according to the New York State Board of Elections.
States including Hawaii, Arizona, Maine, Indiana, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Wisconsin have also switched to other policies. However, net metering continues to be popular. An August 2017 survey by the University of Michigan found 76 percent of respondents supported it.
While VDER makes the valuing of solar energy more nuanced, it also makes it more complicated to participate in community solar projects, said Kelly Roache, director of inclusion at Solstice, an organization dedicated to promoting affordable community solar.
VDER only considers the market value of solar energy and decreases in greenhouse gas emissions, she explained. It fails to count other environmental benefits of community solar power, such as decreasing co-pollutants and particulate matter from fossil fuels and offering an affordable energy option to marginalized communities.
Low-income communities and communities of color “are on both ends of the experience of injustice,” she added. They are more likely to experience pollution from the fossil-fuel industry and to spend a large portion of their income on utility bills.
In other parts of New York State, community solar helps fill in the gap for those who aren’t able to install rooftop panels and allows customers to buy a share of panels in another location, said Carrick. For those who can’t afford to invest in shares, there are pay-as-you-go options that work like monthly cell-phone plans.
Solar currently provides over 9,000 jobs and powers more than 200,000 homes in New York State. Carrick said the energy program at the Central New York Regional Planning and Development Board has approved 35 community solar projects that could provide power for up to 8,000 residents. Many were slated to be built on closed landfills—land that otherwise has no meaningful use.
But most of these projects will no longer be viable under VDER and are currently on hold, he said.
Facing pressure from community and environmental activists, the Assembly passed A.10474, a bill to reinstate net metering, by a large margin in June. But the state Senate version, S.08273, failed to make it through the Republican-controlled upper house.
Advocates are pushing for action from Cuomo’s office. “We are fully prepared to do whatever we can to make this a campaign issue,” said Carrick.
Photo: A mother and child visit their building’s rooftop solar panels. Credit: Elia Gran