Installing solar power in a brownstone

August 30, 2008

We own a brownstone in Clinton Hill and are interested in installing solar panels but have no idea how to go about it or choose a product or contractor to do this. Do you have any good resources or organizations?
– Lai-Wan

It’s great that you are looking into this. I recently went to a lecture by Jeff Perlman of Bright Power Inc. so credit goes to him for much of this response.

First you’re going to want to look at what type of solar system you want. The two main types are solar heating and Photovoltaic (PV, or the kind that makes electricity). Solar heating panels run a pipe through the panel and run water through the pipe. The water is heated by the sun as it passes through the panel and can be used to heat a building or provide hot water. You probably already have heating and hot water systems in your house and inthis climate, solar really works best for generating electricity. While PV panels are much more expensive, there are more government incentives for them. So you will probably want to go with PV.

Next step will be to hire a contractor to assess the potential for solar on your property. It’s not worth the effort and expense if your panels won’t get very much sun. You will most likely put the panels on your roof. Solar’s potential is mostly dependent on shading and it varies over the year as the sun’s angle and the amount of leaf cover changes. Most of the light you’ll be getting will be coming from southerly directions. The shading analysis should give you an efficiency rating describing how much of the available sunlight is actually hitting the spot you want to put your panels. NY State incentives are only available for systems with 80% efficiency or more, so that’s a good cutoff.

One side-note on shading is to be aware of what shade might be present in the future. Assuming you’ll want to keep these panels for 25 years or so, look around at what might be growing or is being constructed nearby. Big bummer if someone builds a 12-story apartment tower just south of your brand new solar panels. Look for stuff currently under construction, or prime development lots (large vacant or underbuilt lots). You shouldn’t have to worry about people building on developed properties like brownstones. You can also check with the Dept. of City Planning about whether the area around your house is zoned to allow taller buildings or not.

If you do get enough sun, you’ll want to look into incentives. These include State and Federal tax credits, and direct NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research and Development Authority) grants. A great resource for state incentives is the Database for State Renewable Energy Incentives. You can also visit www.nyserda.org or the USEPA and DOE websites. Your contractor will likely be familiar with these as well. Get to know these programs well so that you apply for them correctly and maximize their benefits.

Once you’ve got your panels, you’ll be able to save on electricity bills. New York allows net metering on residential properties, so if you are so lucky as to generate more than you use, you can get credit on your bill for the energy you pump back in.

General tips are to get a good contractor, understand the financial aspects of the projects, plan the rebate applications well to ensure you make deadlines and have the necessary information, and apply for building permits early. Because these are still relatively uncommon projects, it may take longer than usual to get building permits.

Also, it may be a good idea to redo your roof if it’s not in really good shape. The expected life-span of a PV system is at least 25 years and if you will require major roof work during that time, you’ll have to dismantle the system. Combining roof work and PV installation also allows the PV installer access to structures within the roof that can be useful for anchoring the PV system.

As for specific contractors or systems, I don’t know too much about it, but one person is Jeff Perlman of Bright Power, Inc. Another resource is Solar One, which is an organization that focuses on solar power and it’s environmental benefits. They should be able to recommend specific contractors and vendors.

Hope this proves helpful (and not too daunting).