Solar and the City: A Day with Brooklyn SolarWorks

By Frida Oskarsdottir 

 

As the High-Strung ambassador for the Power chapter, Frida joined a group of New Yorkers for a rainy-day tour with Brooklyn SolarWorks, put on by New York Adventure Club.

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Just last week, The New York Times reported that in 2016 the solar industry accounted for the largest job creation in the renewable energy sector with over 373,000 jobs. By comparison, the coal industry was responsible for only 160,000 new jobs over the same time period. While these figures are encouraging to renewable enthusiasts, a new White House administration means an uncertain policy future, giving some pause to even the most optimistic solar nerds.

In New York state, solar electricity generation has grown nearly 800% from 2011 to 2016, ranking it 10th in the country for installed capacity. Still, less than 1% of homes in New York are powered by solar. With aggressive goals to provide half of the state’s electricity through renewable sources by 2030, much more needs to happen. For many consumers there is still a disconnect between solar technology and their personal energy consumption. On a rainy Earth Day two weeks ago, I took a tour with New York Adventure Club — complete with Gowanus rooftop DJing and snacks from (where else?) Whole Foods — to learn more about one company’s mission to bring solar power to New York City. New York Adventure Club organizes all kinds of day trips around the city; the small group in attendance this day ranged from renewable energy aficionados to people who had been on tours with the company before and just thought it sounded fun. The tour consisted of small lectures and explanations given by co-founder of Brooklyn SolarWorks, T.R. Ludwig, as the group took in the company’s headquarters and workshop.

Along with his co-founders, Ludwig established Brooklyn Solarworks about two years ago. After over a decade in the industry and working for other solar installers, he says he saw room for growth which larger businesses were missing out on. “A lot of solar installers are focused on what we call a suburban pitched roof. Here in New York City our buildings don’t look like that. They tend to have flat roofs, and as a result, a lot of this market has been ignored by large solar companies. Some will dip their toes in but most wind up leaving. What I saw when I started out is that there is a great opportunity here to serve homeowners.” It also helps that there is an ongoing boom in solar power across the country, which Ludwig attributes to lower costs and new financing mechanisms that significantly reduce the out-of-pocket cost to the consumer.  

In order to solve the flat roof dilemma and bring the success of solar power from the suburbs to New York City, Brooklyn SolarWorks collaborated with design firm Situ Studio in order to create what Ludwig calls “the lynchpin” of their innovation: the solar canopy.

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A solar canopy on the roof of Brooklyn SolarWorks’ Gowanus workshop. The company can use credits generated here to offset electricity costs at their headquarters down the street.

To accommodate the unique requirements for solar in the city, the canopy’s design serves a functional purpose. As we stood beneath the enormous canopy installed on the roof of Brooklyn SolarWorks’ workshop, Ludwig explains “there are a number of onerous fire codes that require very large swaths of the roof to be left open in case the fire department needs access. The canopy allows you to raise the system 9 feet above the roof, which is the height given by the FDNY determined by a 6-foot-tall fireman swinging an axe. With that threshold we developed our technology to get up 9 feet but also to be withstand high winds. There’s nothing else like it and there’s nobody out there doing what we’re doing.”

In addition to function, the company hopes the canopy’s distinct look will act as a sort of built-in marketing campaign. “We want people to get excited to have these on their roof. We think that it’ll have a good viral effect on people – talking to their neighbors, getting referrals. There’s really good data out there that suggests that that’s true; the more solar you see on a street, the faster it gets built.” While Brooklyn SolarWorks primary business is still traditional solar installation, Ludwig hopes the canopy, which the company has the proprietary rights to, will follow closely behind.

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A street view of the workshop, from which bystanders can see the canopy.

So how much does it cost? According to Ludwig, it’s cheaper than you might think. Typically in New York City, your Con Edison utility bill arrives in the mail and you pay it, no questions asked. Switching to solar asks the customer to make an upfront investment for long-term savings. Ludwig explains, “You’re basically prepaying for electricity for 25 years at a drastically reduced rate. If you think about your ConEd bill now, take 25 percent of that and put it out over 25 years.” If paying just a quarter of your bill sounds appealing, you can thank the many federal, state, and city incentives aimed at making solar as attractive as possible to the consumer. Ludwig states the biggest boon was the 2015 extension of the Investment Tax Credit, which alone pays the customer back 30 percent of the installation cost through a tax break. Despite President Trump’s coal-fueled promises, Ludwig doesn’t worry about the credit being cut short. “At this point as it will already sunset in a few years, so it doesn’t make sense for them to touch it and get bad press.”

Of course, in order to buy the canopy, you have to first buy the house. For renters in New York City, the options for solar power are more limited, but they do exist. Ludwig mentions “community solar,” which allows individual consumers who may not own their homes to buy solar credits from different providers (it’s a technical process including something called net-metering, Google it because if I try to explain it to you my hair might catch on fire). “It’s an evolving model,” Ludwig says, “you couldn’t do this even a year ago.”

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On the roof of Brooklyn SolarWorks’ headquarters and office – a portable canopy also serves as cover from the rain.

The day ended with refreshments and music on another roof, this time atop the office headquarters a few blocks from the workshop. As some of us lamented the chilly weather, Ludwig mentioned that interestingly solar panels thrive on cooler sunny days and run much less efficiently in excessive heat. The rain pattered as a DJ spun music from solar-run turntables, and in spite of the clouds I felt keenly aware of the powerful sun behind them.