It will be a sustainable building milestone: a structure that generates every watt of power it needs from a 96-kilowatt (KW) canopy of solar panels, perched like a beetle’s black carapace above its roof. Ground source heat pumps will warm the structure, called Solar 2, in the winter, and heavily insulated walls will keep hot air out in the summer.
Solar 2, a green energy education center for the nonprofit group Solar One, won’t be built in the Sunbelt or in an off-the-grid national park. Instead, it will occupy a contaminated landfill site on Manhattan’s East River, near some of the most densely packed streets in the world. Solar One is currently raising money to construct the $12 million building, which has qualified for a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum award from the U.S. Green Building Council.
Less than 20 years ago, a “net-zero energy building” building wouldn’t have stood a chance on New York’s mean streets, according to Gregory Kiss of Kiss+Cathcart Architects, the building’s designer. At the time, buildings outfitted with photovoltaic solar panels — called building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) — were coming into vogue in California and Northern Europe, but New York developers and homeowners wouldn’t bite. Solar panels were too expensive, there were no financial incentives to installing them, and the approval process was cumbersome. It was, in some circumstances, even illegal to install solar panels on a building and then try to connect to the grid, according to New York energy experts.
Times have changed.
“Now every project [we design] that is highly sustainable is right in New York City,” said Kiss.
An increasing number of high-profile projects, from commercial high-rises to mixed- and low-income housing in Brooklyn and the South Bronx, are putting solar panels in every conceivable spot: on rooftops, in vertical walls, and inside the skins of buildings. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and the federal and city governments offer incentives and rebates for installing solar panels but architects and developers say the drive for green architecture goes beyond the financial. Developers at some buildings, such as The Solaire in Battery Park City, see solar as a selling point for the (mostly affluent) buyers they seek to attract. “At The Solaire, they were very conscious about creating a solar entry canopy,” according to Marissa Vaish, a senior project manager at RELAB, an energy consultancy that designed the building’s solar power systems.
In the past five years, solar photovoltaic capacity in the Big Apple has almost quadrupled from about 1.5 megawatts (MW) to 5.7 MW, according to a recent report called New York City’s Solar Energy Future (pdf). The growth rate is accelerating and the city could add another 45 to 70 MW of solar capacity by 2015, according to the New York City Solar America City Partnership. (New York utility Con Edison claims 1 MW can power 1,000 homes.)
“We’ve doubled the amount of solar in the city in the last year alone,” said Tria Case, the executive director of the City University of New York’s Center for Sustainable Energy, which coauthored the report. “I have not heard of any other city with that percentage in growth.”