Solar in the Big Apple

The administration of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has genuinely been a national leader on policies to support the shift to a new energy paradigm based around renewable energy deployment. This is particularly true at the distributed level. As its cornerstone, the state of New York seeks to get half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, and only a handful of other states – Hawaii, Vermont and California – have an equal or greater level of ambition in their renewable energy mandates.

Solar is backed by a laundry list of policies through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). These include the state’s block grant incentive program, the indefinite extension of net metering, and support for solar research and development through the Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE).

Additionally, New York State has launched the Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) process, which is perhaps the most ambitious process to restructure the distribution grid to support solar and other forms of demand-side solutions in the U.S. (See pv magazine 11/2015 for a feature on the REV process)

Untapped potential

With all of this, one would think that New York City would be a booming market for distributed solar. There is no shortage of rooftop space in the largest metropolis in the U.S., nor affluent building owners, as the city has around 380,000 millionaires – the highest number and proportion inthe entire country, at 4.6% of the city’s population.

And while it is true that the densely populated city has significant problems with shading, in 2015 online mapping tool Mapdwell found that New York City’s rooftops have the potential to host a staggering 11+ GW of solar PV.

Despite all of this, the rooftop market in New York City is lagging well behind the rest of the state. Utility ConEdison, which serves New York City, reported in April that there was only around 70 MW of solar PV installed in all five of the city’s famous boroughs – including both residential and commercial and industrial installations.

This is in stark contrast to neighboring Long Island, which had reached 139 MW of installed residential PV alone in April, exhausting its last block grant level under NY-Sun. As of late May, Long Island had additionally installed another 25 MW of small-scale commercial and industrial (C&I) PV. This gives it more than twice the distributed solar capacity, despite having less than half the population of New York City. The Upstate region of New York is also doing much better, and had reached 175 MW of installed residential PV and 125 MW of small C&I PV in late May.

Department of Buildings

When pv magazine sat down and talked to installers working in New York City, it became clear that shading is the least of the barriers that they face in selling and installing solar PV systems across the city. As one of the main barriers, the process for securing permits for solar PV through the city’s Department of Buildings (DOB) turns out to be something of a nightmare.

Charles Feit, the CEO of Bronx-based installer OnForce Solar, says that the first permit that his company pulled for a PV system took over one year. And despite improvements, he still describes “massive, massive delays.” “They can’t take the volume,” Feit said. “They just weren’t prepared for what is going on.” The New York Solar Energy Society (NYSES) has explained that this is in part due to the lack of a solar-specific team at the department, and the inability to submit electronic filings.

To further complicate matters, Feit’s employee in charge of securing permits says that the two sides of DOB – the electrical unit and the construction unit – do not coordinate with each other, which contributes to a highly unpredictable environment. “Some inspectors will fail you for what other inspectors pass you for,” reports Madeline Munoz, who works for OnForce Solar.

The results are waits that still last up to six months, which has caused OnForce to lose customers. “People cancel,” observes Feit. He notes that he would gladly pay more for permits if it would help to speed up the process. “At this juncture, time is worth more than money,” he explains.

FDNY and the six foot rule

However, many building owners in New York will not even get to the point of waiting for a permit, as the size of a PV system that they can put on their rooftops is often too small to even bother. This has less to do with the average roof size in New York City than the limited portion of this space that can be used for rooftop PV.

The Fire Department City of New York (FDNY) requires clearance around roof vents and obstructions, but also a 6 foot (1.8 meter) clearance around the perimeter of any flat roof in the city. FDNY’s explanation for this requirement has to do with rooftop access for firefighters using aerial ladders.

“Once on the rooftop, firefighters conduct a perimeter search of the rooftop and access different building features such as stair bulkheads, fire escapes, skylights, vents and other features,” explained FDNY spokesperson Elisheva Zakheim. “In certain situations, some operations may require venting of stairways and buildings from bulkhead and penthouse roofs. In addition, the rooftop may need to be cut to ventilate the heat and smoke

At a glance
New York City’s solar PV potential is largely untapped, with studies showing the city could support 11+ GW of rooftop PV.

The actual figure is a mere 70 MW of installed capacity across the five boroughs – dwarfed by neighboring areas that have far fewer residents and buildings.

The chief stumbling block is bureaucratic, with the Department of Buildings particularly culpable in the slow approval process.

The famous FDNY also has a set of arbitrary rules that are not only at odds with other fire departments nationwide, but serve to make many rooftops impractical for solar.

This impasse is exacerbated by a lack of communication between the two bodies, top-down arrogance and a heavy-handed ‘safety first’ approach.

of a fire in the event of a top floor fire.” However, FDNY did not explain why it requires three times as much space to do this as do other cities, where a clearance of two feet (60 centimeters) is considered the norm. NYSES Founder and President Wyldon Fishman says that this is a major issue.

“Row upon row of townhouses with flat roofs make up a large portion of housing stock in NYC and many of these buildings are older and do not comply with today’s landing codes for rooftop entry,” Fishman told pv magazine . “For the past year a continuing conflict in permitting has dampened the market for flat roof solar, as impediment fines can be levied and must be paid by the installer.” When this factor alone is taken into consideration, the available potential for rooftop solar PV systems in New York City diminishes greatly. Mapdwell notes that its 11+ GW estimate is based on a “standard” two-foot clearance instead of a six-foot clearance, which it describes as the “high-yield potential of the actual building geometry.” “If you considered code challenges and typical practice today, you would definitely have a reduced number,” Mapdwell spokesperson David Nix told pv magazine .

Progress delayed

There are other barriers for solar installers at the state level, including the state setting no workmans compensation designation for solar installers, leading to high and unpredictable insurance costs. Wyldon Fishman says that all of these factors together result in “enormous soft costs.” Fishman also notes a lack of coordination between the DOB and FDNY. “Right now the DOB might OK a solar installation but the fire department may choose to overrule this,” explains Fishman. “What may be sufficient for the DOB can be insufficient for the FDNY. Meanwhile, the customer loses interest as time drags on and the installation is not completed.” FDNY reports that it issued 145 notices of violation to solar installers in 2015, with the most common reason being installations that do not comply with codes and that are without prior approval. This volume alone supports Fishman’s allegations of a lack of communication and coordination between the two bodies of the DOB and FDNY.

Fishman further states that these problems are interfering with the city’s ability to meet its goals for solar PV. “The mayor has created a PlanOne for NYC and it includes solar energy as a city manpower objective,” notes Fishman. “The solar installation potential to service the base in NYC is in the billions. Without the proper resources at the DOB and a better understanding of fire hazards, the city’s going to fall short.”

Solar in the shadows

Many installers, faced with this set of complications, simply choose to look elsewhere. Ronnie Mandler, President of Valley Stream-based installer Best Energy Power, has long worked in New York City. However, he reports brisk business in suburban Long Island and Westchester County, where a different set of rules and regulatory environments prevail.

Even in New York City, for buildings with a roof pitch of over 20% the six foot rule vanishes, and instead the only requirement is a clearance of three feet from the ridge line.

However, the bulk of the housing stock with pitched roofs is found outside the city’s five boroughs.

Wyldon Fishman is continuing her struggle for reform at various city and state agencies, but progress is slow. One factor cited is the political power of FDNY.

Especially after their role as first responders in the aftermath of the September 11 World Trade Center attacks, firefighters and the FDNY are often seen as above criticism. Another factor may be bureaucratic arrogance. While FDNY answered pv magazine ’s questions, DOB did not return calls and emails requesting information.

And if solar is struggling to catch on in New York, energy storage faces an even steeper uphill battle. While many installers including OnForce Solar are looking at energy storage for the commercial segment, fire issues with lithium-ion batteries could mean barriers to installation in residential buildings in New York City. FDNY notes that there is a major revision of international fire codes regarding energy storage, and that its members are participating in that process.

There is undoubtedly huge potential for rooftop solar in New York City. However, without the cooperation of city institutions such as FDNY and the DOB, this potential will remain unfulfilled.

To date, these institutions have been barriers to the deployment of rooftop solar. And until greater political pressure is brought to bear, this looks unlikely to change.

Stay informed

pv magazine is the leading trade media platform covering the global solar photovoltaics industry. Purchase a digital or print version of this issue to read this article in full.