From left, Matthew Ketschke, John Zigmont and Kevin Nestfield, all of Consolidated Edison, atop the utility’s expansive warehouse in Queens. Credit Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times
More than 10,000 New York City residents are using solar power to reduce their electric bills. But hardly any of those people converting the sun’s rays into savings are poor.
The reason so few New Yorkers with low incomes are tapping into the power of the sun is not a lack of interest, but rather a lack of access, community activists say. Simply put, most poor New Yorkers — like many other city residents — do not have a roof of their own on which they could install solar panels, even if they could afford to do so.
Consolidated Edison is offering use of its own rooftops to help solve that problem for at least a few thousand of its low-income customers. The utility plans to ask state regulators this week for permission to install solar panels on some of its buildings in the city and to share the benefits with needy customers.
“We want to do our part to make sure that all of our customers have access to renewable energy, regardless of their income level,” Matthew Ketschke, Con Edison’s vice president for distributed resource integration, said. Mr. Ketschke added that he believed the proposal fit with the regulators’ demand that utilities increase their use of renewable energy.
Buffeted by gusting winds as he stood atop a warehouse in Astoria, Queens, Mr. Ketschke listed the obstacles blocking the poor from using solar power: They tend to live in apartments and to share an electric meter with other tenants. And those who live in houses or have access to a rooftop where solar panels could be installed often do not have the thousands of dollars it would cost for the installation or enough credit to finance it.
Con Edison’s idea could circumvent all of those hurdles, Mr. Ketschke said. The company has buildings all around the city and in some of its northern suburbs, enough roof space to hold solar panels that could produce as much as 11 megawatts of electricity, he said. That could result in savings of $5 a month for as many as 6,000 customers who qualify for financial help from the company, Mr. Ketschke said.
That is a tiny fraction of Con Edison’s three million electricity customers in the city and Westchester County, but it could have a larger symbolic value. The company wants to show that it is heeding an order issued last year by the state’s Public Service Commission to allow communities to share sources of renewable energy.
“New York City is burdened with some of the highest electricity rates in the country,” Jeremy Friedman, coordinator of the Central Brooklyn Community Solar Program, said. “It’s definitely important to be looking at ways to bring renewables to low-income people. That really hasn’t happened in New York City until now.”
The low, flat top of Con Edison’s expansive warehouse in the northwest corner of Queens would be ideal. The roof could hold several thousand panels, each of which measures about 3 feet by 6 feet and produces up to 250 watts of power.
The power generated on the roof would be measured as it is fed into the local grid. Con Ed would determine its value, after accounting for the costs of the installation, and share it with customers who sign up for the pilot program.
Mr. Ketschke said the company was prepared to put solar panels on top of other buildings, including offices, substations and garages. The first installations could be in use by the end of next year, he said. Con Edison has installed panels on a roof of its headquarters near Union Square in Manhattan, but it uses the power generated there to provide electricity to the building.
Only about 200 of the more than 10,000 Con Edison customers who generate their own solar power qualify as low-income, said Christopher Raup, director of Con Edison’s Utility of the Future group. Low-income customers receive a discount of $9.50 on their monthly electric bills, he said.
Con Edison’s proposal requires approval from the state commission in part because the company would own the solar panels. Generally, utilities that distribute electricity in New York are prohibited from owning sources of power generation.
Mr. Friedman, whose program has been helping older homeowners in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, band together for bulk discounts on solar panels, said he approved of the proposal. “It’s a good idea,” he said. “You want to really level the playing field by opening up these really great sunny roofs.”
But, he added, “it’s not just an altruistic idea.”
He said Con Edison was grappling with surging demand for power in booming parts of the city and would benefit from having more sources to draw from in times of peak demand. “They have a statutory need to figure out how to manage demand differently,” Mr. Friedman said, “especially across large swaths of Brooklyn and Queens.”
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