Even the Sun Needs an Advocate
The success of New York City’s solar efforts wouldn’t have been possible without its on-the-ground ombudsmen.
The iconic New York City skyline has always had a powerful draw -- for tourists, moviemakers and urban dwellers. All those glinting rooftops could someday be more than eye candy; they could be used as a platform for deploying utility-scale solar electricity panels.
That was the premise detailed in a 2006 roadmap developed by the City University of New York (CUNY) and its sustainability program. The report proved instrumental to the city, earning it an early designation as one the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) original 13 Solar America Cities in 2007. While solar energy is still less than 1 percent of overall electricity production in the U.S., its use is growing rapidly.
Today, New York is unique among the DOE’s roster of 25 solar cities: It is integrating a major utility, Con Edison, in the CUNY-led partnership, which includes the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability. Since 2006, the partnership has forged relationships with local power authorities, city planners, code enforcement officials, fire and public safety agencies, and community organizations, installers and consumers.
One of the partnership’s most visible results is the new NYC Solar Map, which pinpoints solar installations and helps calculate the solar potential and annual savings for each building in the city. With the map in place, the partnership plans to pilot a multi-agency, one-stop permitting portal.
None of these services -- nor working with Con Edison on connecting solar to dense urban grids to offset peak demand -- would have been possible without expert on-the-ground knowledge.
Enter the solar ombudsman, which in this case refers to two men, one woman and CUNY itself. They are advocates, evangelists, mediators and problem solvers in birthing an industry and making room for renewable energy. “CUNY acts as an institutional ombudsman among government, industry and community to bring down barriers,” says New York City Solar Coordinator Alison Kling. This, she adds, includes a web of interconnected policy and implementation sticking points, including permitting, financing and other technical issues.
One of the individual ombudsmen is embedded in the Department of Buildings two days a week, while the other two pore over regulations and zoning requirements, develop financial models, recommend targeted policy changes, walk rooftops and work community meetings.
A 2008 property tax abatement for solar energy sparked dramatic growth in the number of permit applications -- from five in the first year to 25 in the second and more than 100 last year. “Exponential growth coincided with having the right policies and incentives, a platform for the growth in industry and the help people need to get through the process,” says Tria Case, the original roadmap’s architect and now CUNY’s director of sustainability.
She says CUNY’s ombudsman has helped address issues quickly and resolve them collaboratively based on trusted relationships.
The model’s next test looms large. As the prices of solar panels fall, Kling says, the soft costs related to regulation, financing and administration will represent an ever-larger proportion of the expense of solar installations. The DOE has called for reducing the cost of solar energy systems by some 75 percent before 2020 to make solar competitive with other forms of renewable energy and encourage greater adoption. It could all add up to a career-defining moment for your neighborhood solar ombudsman.