I Wanna Be a Solar Empowerment Zone!

Last week I attended a special hearing of the New York City Council’s Infrastructure Task Force, on the topic of Distributed Energy Generation in NYC – essentially, how to encourage it. Let’s begin by defining Distributed Generation: “Small, modular, decentralized energy systems for heat or power production that are located in or near the place where energy is used” (from Solar One‘s event handout). Such systems – solar panels on apartment buildings and factories, wind turbines, fuel cells, co-generation (which captures waste heat from generation of electricity and uses it for heating or cooling) – could be hugely beneficial to New York City, especially by reducing demand on our strained power grid during peak electricity demand in the summertime. Yet there is currently less than 2 megawatts of distributed power in New York City, a micro-drop in the proverbial bucket (our peak demand is 11-12,000 megawatts!). Why is this, what are the potential benefits we are missing out on, and what can we do to encourage more distributed generation? These were the topics addressed at the forum.

Solar One has a great summary of the day’s events, as does the NY Times. Both focus on what for me was perhaps the most meaningful topic raised: the possibility of creating Solar Empowerment Zones in New York City. These would be “designed to scale up solar capacity in the city at an exponential, rather than incremental rate”, by expediting the permit process, assessing the local grid’s capability to have power flow in both directions rather than just one, and encouraging neighbors to plan solar projects together to take advantage of bulk pricing. Members of the panel seemed to agree that the outer boroughs represent great untapped solar potential, with thousands of square feet of flat open roof space on apartments and industrial buildings. I began to envision Flatbush as a Solar Empowerment Zone, with photovoltaic panels springing up on roofs throughout the neighborhood. I can see it! Can you?

11 thoughts on “I Wanna Be a Solar Empowerment Zone!”

  • Okay, this sounds great. I live in a co-op on Ocean Ave. Does anyone know if there are tax incentives, etc., to make this attractive to the board? And what about wind power?

  • What would be the incentive for a building if most people pay for electric individually, particularly in buildings that are not majority owner-occupied? I guess at a minimum, solar could cover the electric for common areas. Figuring out a practical way to improve boiler efficiency and reducing oil use would be really useful for most buildings.

  • I had been reading about folks doing group deals in other parts of the country. Here’s the website to a group from and organization from the Bay Area that had caught my eye.


    It’s worth checking out. Every time I step out onto my roof and look around, I see a lot of potential. I see green roofs and solar. Anyone know a good place to find out what the typical wind conditions are in an area, and what values represent a good wind turbine site?


  • @Erika, we were actually in discussions with 1bog to make Flatbush (and Brooklyn in general) one of their next markets. They are going through some structural changes so the collaboration is stalled for the moment, but their model seems to have worked well in San Francisco. As anyone familiar with the NYC solar scene will tell you, it comes with its own particular set of challenges, but there are some really great minds working on it! Solar One (solar1.org) is always at the forefront of these efforts and they have been a great resource for Sustainable Flatbush. Chris Neidl leads their I [Heart] PV campaign and shared his wealth of knowledge with us at last year’s Neighborhood Solar Forum.

    As for wind conditions I don’t know of any resources, but for green roofs there is a Google listserv where lots of info is being shared:


    and the New York Botanic Garden is hosting a series of courses on everything from plant selection to regulations and incentives:


  • @jim, this article lays out some of the issues for installing solar panels on the roof of a co-op building:


    I heard the writer speak about this at last year’s NYC Solar Forum, and it actually gave me some hope. There are some real hurdles, first and foremost getting a quorum of shareholders to agree to making the building the electricity customer, who then bills the residents (as opposed to the situation you mention where everyone pays their own Con Ed bill). This is necessary to deal with financing the installation and billing that against the electricity the panels generate… it’s complicated but this building did it and came out ahead, even before the additional solar incentives were put into place in the middle of last year.

    I agree with you that improving the efficiency of current systems would probably be the biggest and easiest win for most buildings. This is the low-hanging fruit that hardly anyone is looking up and seeing.

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