When Ed and Paula Antonio moved from a small home in Marine Park, Brooklyn, to a roughly 3,000-square-foot house in Belle Harbor, Queens, they realized that with all that space and a central air-conditioning system, their electricity costs would run much higher. So after intensive research and analysis and the bids of five contractors, they paid $72,000 to install 42 solar panels on their new roof.
The Antonios, who are recouping much of the cost through rebates and tax breaks, are part of a surprising cluster of solar-powered homes in this beachy enclave on the western side of the Rockaway Peninsula, where neighbors can now show off with an iPhone app how much power they are generating. But this cluster is still something of a rarity.
Despite Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s ample use of the bully pulpit to promote his environmental agenda — and a raft of policy changes, generous incentive programs and celebrity-studded public announcements urging New Yorkers to “go green” — only a few homeowners in the city have slapped those shiny blue panels on their roofs.
In the 2011 fiscal year, which ended in June, just 75 residential property owners received city approval to install solar-panel systems. That number was up sharply from 2009, just after the creation of a property tax abatement to encourage the use of solar power. That year, there were just five approvals, for both commercial and industrial projects; in 2010, the number of residential approvals jumped to 13.
“We’ve seen a tremendous amount of growth even though the numbers are small,” said Robert D. LiMandri, the commissioner of the Buildings Department. And he is bullish, he said, that the growth will continue. “At the end of the day, to me, this is just another permit,” he said, “and if enough people do it on the block or in the neighborhood, it really will change the way New York City lives.”
To that end, the department is about to roll out new educational materials to help the licensed architects and engineers who are required to file for permits. In addition, there is a new interactive map, developed by the City University of New York with the city and the federal Energy Department, that shows the estimated solar potential of each of the nearly one million buildings in the five boroughs.
But there are still challenges to creating your own sun-driven power generator, installers say. Not every building is suitable; the panels should be placed at a 30- to 40-degree angle facing south to maximize their power, said Mark Chandarpal of Go Solar Green NY in Hollis, Queens, who put in the Antonios’ panels. That is easier on a sloped roof like the Antonios’, but a flat roof would require a support structure, he said.
Some roofs are simply too small or shady to pay off. For example, a neighbor of the Antonios’ son wanted to install a system on his house in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, but could not because the city would not let him prune the tall trees shading his roof.
Indeed, there is a web of bureaucracy to navigate, generally more tangled than in other cities. Roger Ditman, who has been trying to put a system on his brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, since August, said he found the process frustrating. It took six months for the Landmarks Preservation Commission to sign off, he said; now he is waiting for a waiver from the Fire Department because his plan would cover a skylight and would not leave a required six-foot access corridor for firefighters to use if they need to move across the roof. “If the city is serious about pushing solar, they have to have one agency to which you can go,” he said.
But even if he gets that approval and a permit from the Buildings Department, there is no guarantee that it will go smoothly, because the solar projects do not undergo a full plan review until after construction is completed. As a result, many customers and contractors find themselves moving panels around later because of unanticipated objections from the city.
“The Buildings Department and Fire Department have really worked with the solar contractors to make it work,” said Al Frishman of Aeon Solar, which designs and installs systems in New York, New Jersey, Colorado and California. “But it’s very stressful after you think that you’re good to find out that you’re not good.”
The Buildings Department said that it was planning to change its procedures, and would soon begin reviewing plans before installation. The upfront cost, of course, remains a major disincentive, although with government and power authority rebates and credits, solar customers can often get much of their investments back. The Antonios said that the rebates and credits would ultimately pay them back about $62,000 of their $72,000 outlay. And the monthly savings can be substantial.
In Park Slope, Martha Cameron said that the 18 solar panels Aeon installed on her brownstone roof covered the electric needs of her duplex, “including all the guilt-free air-conditioning.” And in Belle Harbor, where the Antonios say using solar has made them more aware of conserving other resources like gas and water, they now pay about $7 a month, down from $140 to $180. When the system generates more power than the house needs, the Long Island Power Authority buys back the extra, which last year added up to $319.61.
“When God gives us the sun,” Mrs. Antonio said, “we get the check.”
There are several other houses in the area that have been keeping Mr. Chandarpal busy. A few blocks away, Andrea Gitter said she had been inspired after seeing her brother’s array of panels pointed toward the coastline. “There was no downside between the tax breaks and the incentives, and to do something that made me feel like a good person, doing something good for the environment,” she said. Her bills have dropped to $5 or $6, a savings of about $200 a month. Still, she cautioned, “sometimes we have very high bills — like $20.”
The New York Times