Last Friday afternoon on Powell Street in Brooklyn, the sun blistered down upon a small group of Brownsville residents, alternative energy advocates and City Council people as they gathered in front of longtime resident Ellen Fludd’s house to sip ginger ales and vie for spots beneath the easy-up tent. The sun also reflected off of several shiny new solar panels that were recently installed on Ellen’s roof free of charge, the cause for the celebration, and a result of the Solarize Brownsville campaign, which aims to install free solar panels on 100 Brownsville rooftops to help cut electricity costs and carbon emissions in NYC.
Fludd has been rooted in the Brownsville community along with her three children and six grandchildren for more than 50 years. She saw a flyer posted up in her neighborhood, she followed up, and now the home she owns is powered entirely by renewable energy that cost her nothing to install.
“I’m very happy about it,” she said shyly at the ribbon cutting ceremony.
To date, Level Solar, in partnership with Council member Latrice Walker’s office and New York State Energy and Research Development Authority, (NYSERDA ), has installed solar panels on five Brownsville rooftops for free, and they’ve been campaigning aggressively to grow that number.
“When they knocked on my door, I was like, ‘What’s this all about?’,” said Eric Pritchard of Sackman Street. “When I heard it was for solar power, I said ‘Come on in, I’ve been trying to do this for 20 years.’”
Along with Ellen Fludd, Pritchard is one of 150 Brownsville residents who have expressed interest in free solar panel installation since Council member Latrice Walker’s office announced the Solarize Brownsville campaign last month.
Brownsville is far from the first neighborhood to participate in a Solarize, which has been around for about six years. It’s supposed to be a short-term initiative that drums up excitement about solar power at a grass roots level. Then, when a neighborhood has demonstrated a need, the state government (via NYSERDA) steps in to help fund various projects. Similar initiatives include Solarize CB6 in Red Hook and Here Comes Solar NYC which allows interested residents to organize group rates and save money on solar installation.
Brownsville residents are the first to get solar panels for free — and you can apply to have your building considered for free solar panels too.
This is how it works: Level Solar or someone from Councilwoman Walker’s office comes and bangs on your door (or the door of the local church, community center, etc.) and signs you up. Then you convince your landlord that this is a good idea. He/she says yes, then some solar technicians climb up on your roof and put together an “array design,” or an assessment of how much sun the roof gets. This will determine how many panels are needed and where they should go. They install the panels for a total of zero dollars and hook it up to the power grid where the system begins to generate 80 to 100 percent of the electricity for the home.
To submit your building for consideration, fill out the form here.
Free solar panel installation does not mean free electricity – residents still get an electric bill. But solar energy comes at a price of 18 cents per kilowatt-hour, 25 percent less than what the rest of us pay for ConEd, which charges 24 cents/kw hour.
“You’re getting the same electrons regardless of the source,” said Malcolm Bliss, Community Programs Director of Level Solar, “and it just so happens that Brownsville has a fantastic resource in their roofs and the strength of their community.”
When Level Solar was awarded the contract from NYSERDA, part of the deal was that they undertake the outreach effort. “We have people going door to door, going to community events, block parties, houses of worship, the supermarket, community board meetings,” Bliss continued, “and Brownsville has a social fabric that has made us very successful in raising awareness about this.”
Some are excited, some are skeptical. “I’ve been doing a lot of research,” said resident Violet Young. “All of my neighbors know about it. Half are excited, half aren’t. But I’m a senior on fixed income, so I just want to make sure it works for me.”
Others are simply curious, like Pauline from Bed-Stuy, who is a big fan of Council member Walker, but knew nothing about solar power. “I never considered it before but I want to learn more,” she said.
We asked Level Solar how it was possible to give away solar panels, and it turns out that solar technology has improved to a point where it actually doesn’t cost that much to build and install a solar panel. From a business perspective, it’s viable to provide free installation and make your money back on usage. They also pointed out that there is far more financial support behind the solar industry today than there was 10 years ago.
Surprisingly enough, those ruthless oligarchs at Con Ed are pretty excited about the Solarize program as well. Con Ed is actually so overburdened by NYC’s electricity needs that they are already predicting a “brownout” – essentially a planned electricity outage – in Brownsville for 2017.
Con Ed told us they don’t have any formal relationship with the group, but the utility said it does support several solar-related projects, including being part of the Solar Progress Partnership; their headquarters has solar panels on the roof too, spokesman Allan Drury said.
“[I]n general, we support policies that encourage the development of solar energy and that are fair to all customers,” Drury said. “Solar energy is clean and renewable, helps customers save money on electricity and can have benefits for our grid.”
But the looming brownout created some urgency for Latrice Walker, the representative for that district.
“We’re in an energy crisis and our vital infrastructure is at risk, meaning elevators in housing projects, air-conditioning in senior centers, and the power at our hospitals,” she said, “so we need to reduce our dependency on the substation.”
To know that Con Ed already plans to cut electricity in your neighborhood is pretty scary. And while the movement to increase solar usage in an historically impoverished neighborhood has myriad practical benefits – every solar-powered home saves the equivalent of 19,000 gallons of gasoline and reduces as much carbon as planting 4,000 trees – it also points to the resiliency of the people who live there.
“Normally, people don’t think of us as the type of neighborhood that cares about solar power,” Walker said.
That’s a poignant statement. Whether we acknowledge it or not, clean energy and the resources to implement it often come at a price which the largely African American residents of NYC’s poorest neighborhood can’t always afford. That could mean the price of a Prius, the price of buying grass-fed beef, or the price of a decent education that includes studying the million different ways we’re slowly murdering our planet.
“To me, this means changing the story of the haves and the have-nots,” continued Walker, “and today, our first have is Mrs. Ellen Fludd.”
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