If you told every business owner in the largest market in the country that they could reduce long-term expenses, improve their company’s image, and take advantage of cutting-edge technology to improve the environment with one simple conversion, you’d probably be hard-pressed to hear the word “no.”
Which is why it’s a little surprising that New York’s skyscrapers aren’t dotted with solar arrays by now. Sure, solar power has been more widely adopted than ever before, but too many business owners are hesitating, despite the fact that solar energy represents the ultimate win-win-win scenario, benefitting not only businesses but also customers and the world at large.
Looking at the wider picture, the solar industry is amid a nationwide surge. The installation of solar panels nearly doubled from 2015 to 2016, making it the United States’ number-one new energy source in the latter year.
Cities were at the forefront of that growth -- the top 20 metropolitan areas for solar power churn out as much as the entire country did in 2010 -- and New York was indeed a strong participant in that group. It ranked seventh for total installed panels in the nation, according to a report by Environment New York, a statewide advocacy organization, ahead of such places as San Antonio, Las Vegas, and San Francisco.
New York, which had five solar installers in 2005, had 55 by 2015, according to the city’s Economic Development Corporation. More impressively, the number of residential solar projects went from 186 in 2011 to more than 5,300 in 2016.
New York’s solar renaissance has been fueled in part by the initiatives of Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio. Cuomo mandated two years ago that half of the state’s power come from solar, wind, hydroelectric or other renewable sources by 2030, while de Blasio is aiming to cut the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.
According to a 2014 report in the New York Times, de Blasio’s goal is in line with the United Nations’ target for developed countries, in an attempt to curtail the effects of climate change. He went so far as to tell the Times that there is “a moral imperative” to act, while making reference to Hurricane Sandy, a 2012 storm that led to 44 deaths and $19 billion in damage to the city.
He has since unveiled a 3,152-panel rooftop solar installation in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and hopes to generate 100 megawatts of renewable energy on public buildings by 2023. That will not come without cost -- it is estimated that it could run as much as $1 billion for all public buildings to be retrofitted with solar panels -- but it bears repeating that the technology ultimately pays for itself.
As great as the city’s progress is in the solar realm, far more could be done. One study showed that 66% of New York’s rooftops could be used to harness the power of the sun, and that those panels could provide half of the city’s electricity needs at peak periods. The potential savings are mind-boggling.
There are many other places where far more could be done. While San Diego is No. 1 on the list of solar cities, just 14% of its small-building solar capacity is being realized. And California legislators have mandated that half of the state’s electricity comes from renewable sources by 2030; currently it’s about one-fourth, according to a Los Angeles Times report.
Nationwide, the solar market nearly doubled its annual record in 2016, and for the first time since 2011, non-residential installation growth outpaced residential installations. Such businesses as Walmart, Costco, IKEA and FedEx are at the forefront of the solar business trend, and that pattern is likely to become more widespread.
That, coupled with a boom that could see as many as 3.8 million homes equipped with solar panels in 2020 (up from 30,000 in 2006), figures to make the U.S. a major player on the world’s solar stage. A federal study revealed that if solar panels were installed on every roof in America, they would supply 39% of the total power used in the U.S.
Unfortunately, startup costs are the major factor preventing more residences and businesses from going solar. It is estimated that it can run between $20,000 and $50,000 to install a residential system, and while there is the specter of a rollback of federal alternative-energy incentives under the current presidential administration, city and state programs can foot a sizable portion of the bill.
New York, for instance, offers loan financing for residential, small-commercial and commercial projects through NY-Sun. Residential and small-commercial customers can finance up to $25,000 with a repayment period as long as 15 years. Commercial borrowers may finance up to 100% of any-sized solar projects; the interest rate ranges from 4% to 6.5%. NY-Sun also extends reduced installation costs to borrowers across any of these three categories.
And once more, there are savings on the back end. Solar-powered homes reportedly have cut monthly bills by as much as 85%, and it is estimated that solar energy’s ROI beats the stock market in more than 25 states, including New York.
There is, at least, far less red tape to cut through than there once was. The permit-approval process for a solar system, once as long as two years, has now been reduced to a few days. With the other steps -- planning, inspection, etc. -- the entire installation can take roughly a month, depending on the financing process.
And at that point, the utility company changes your electrical meter over, and it starts rolling backwards -- a magical (not to mention profitable) thing.
This isn’t just pure speculation — in fact, I’ve enjoyed the benefits firsthand. We first installed solar panels in my building, Midtown’s Atelier, in 2011, making it the tallest residential solar installation in the United States. At that point the system generated roughly 10% of the building’s energy and cut utility costs by about $120,000 a year.
We earned back the initial investment in the solar panels in a matter of months, then added additional panels over the next five years, slicing utility costs even more. We were, as a result, able to reinvest those savings back into the building, adding an ice skating rink among other amenities.
Then there are the environmental benefits. Solar panels are virtually noiseless. The only pollution they produce is during the construction process, and that pales in comparison to that which is generated by other forms of energy. After installation, they produce no greenhouse gases.
Looking long-term, there’s no reason for business owners not to throw considerable heft into solar conversion. It’s not only a better deal for the environment, it’s a boon for the bottom line.