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Solar Powerhouse Spotlight – Installment 2

In the spirit of the new year, we are excited to feature and celebrate members of the HCS team in our second installment of the Solar Powerhouse Spotlight. We asked our fellow teammates to reflect on the projects as well as initiatives spearheaded throughout the past year, share highlights from their work, and as we ring in the new year, discuss their aspirations for the future of solar in the 2021!

What is one goal are you the proudest to have achieved this year?

José Gálvez Contreras (J.G.C): One project I am proud of is the completion of my very first solar energy project on a mixed-income building which I started to manage when I first arrived at Solar One.

Juan Parra (J.P): I’m really excited that we have started construction for the Community Power projects, where solar is being installed on NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority) buildings, and local residents can buy the energy at a discount, saving them money on their energy bills. As part of the project, we trained 25 NYCHA residents in the skills needed to be an entry-level solar installer, and 15 of the trainees were hired by the installer for this project. We could not have done this without our partners, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Brooklyn Movement Center, the NYC CEC, and Green City Force.

Marigo Farr (M.F): Recommitting to making solar accessible for all, in the form of setting organization-wide racial justice goals for the first time.

Patrick A Owusu (P.O): Hands down has to be hiring my intern.

 

As we bid 2020 a farewell and reflect on the past year, what has been one of your favorite projects of the year?

Gretchen Bradley (G.B): Starting outreach and construction for the Community Power project. The project isn’t finished yet, but beginning to engage potential subscribers and install the solar arrays on NYCHA buildings was a highlight of 2020.

J.G.C: My favorite part of the job during 2020 has been the ability to do more outward-facing outreach through online workshops focused on solar energy technology, environmental justice, and collaborative renewable energy partnerships.

J.P: There are two projects I’ve spent most of my time on this year: Sunset Park Solar and Community Power and it’s hard to pick just one as a favorite. They are similar in many ways: they are both community solar projects where renters can “join” a solar energy system that’s located in their community (but not on their roof). Upon joining, participants will earn monthly credits on their Con Edison bill generated by their share of the solar energy system, so they will be saving with solar energy without installing anything on their roof. Because almost anyone can join, even renters, and there are no sign up costs, these projects are breaking down the traditional barriers to getting solar energy. Both projects are also being driven by partnerships with a cooperative solar developer and local community-based organizations at the center, and providing workforce training and employment opportunities to local residents. Sunset Park Solar is unique because its goal is hyper-local community benefits, while Community Power is unique because it will only be made available to low- and moderate-income households in NYC.

P.O: It’s always fulfilling for me to use my technical skills to maximize solar system designs. More solar means less dependence on dirty fuel sources!

 

How does your work and the broader HCS team’s mission intersect with the broader conversation around racial justice this year? Are there specific avenues you have taken to incorporate a racial justice lens to solar projects?

J.G.C: At HCS, we are deeply committed to make solar energy affordable and available to everyone in New York City. Most of our work focuses on bringing our technical assistance, education, and training especially to those communities that have been deeply disenfranchised for many centuries. My hope is that we continue to do this novel work and grow it at the same time.

J.P: Access to solar energy, or lack thereof, is not just an economic issue, but a racial issue. Our program must ensure that we are delivering on our promise to provide access to solar energy to groups that have been historically underserved by the market, which include communities of color. One of our initiatives that I’m excited about seeks to provide a more direct benefit for the residents of multi-family buildings getting solar energy. Typically, solar energy in multi-family buildings lowers the common area energy costs; we are exploring ways to connect building residents to cost-saving opportunities for their own electric bills, to allow them to see savings in a more direct and tangible way.

M.F: Communities of color have historically borne the brunt of environmental injustice, while also facing challenges accessing the fruits of renewable energy technology. We are hoping to continue working on the latter, and increasing our efforts to develop community solar projects specifically designed for low income and communities of color.

P.O: In terms of outreach, our team mostly focuses on educating communities of color and areas of lower income about solar. These areas are not normally high priority targets for investing time and resources so it makes our efforts all the more important.

Sam Cheng (S.C): I am very glad to be a part of a few racial justice committees within the HCS team. So far, we have had some very productive and generative conversations during these committee meetings surrounding the intersections between environmental justice, racial justice, and affordable solar. One thing we’re working on is building new partnerships with local EJ- and racial justice-oriented organizations in order to connect more communities of color to accessible and affordable solar projects, such as community solar.

 

With solar energy taking huge strides in 2020, how do you envision solar growing its reach in the city in the following year?

J.G.C: Solar energy will become more prevalent as public policy demands inclusion of more renewable energy in how we power our buildings.

J.P: I hope the new mandates that require solar energy on new roofs will increase the number of solar projects. I’m also looking forward to seeing how the CLCPA will support the growth of solar in environmental justice communities. Lastly, community solar, which is critical in expanding access to solar energy, is increasing in popularity, and I hope to see projects that are making a real effort to make their projects more accessible to communities that have been underserved by the solar market in the past.

M.F: I anticipate an unprecedented amount of solar coming online in the next decade, and a positive environmental impact as a result. One part of my vision and hope is to see solar incentives (primarily tax subsidies) evolve to meet the needs of low income communities in particular, because due to the way they are structured, much of affordable housing cannot access them. This evolution that many of us are advocating for is crucial to making sure the growth in solar happens evenly across multiple demographics.

P.O: With consolidated billing for community solar, stable leadership from the federal level, increased awareness of renewable tech and decreasing incentives, I think 2021 will be an important year for the industry. Not only for continued growth but for understanding the future as well.

 

Going into 2021, is there anything you are looking forward to in the solar energy sector or excited to explore in your work?

G.B: 2021 may be the year that the community solar projects I’m working on are fully subscribed, so I’m looking forward to having those subscribers begin to receive solar credits on their Con Edison bills and start saving money on their energy costs.

J.G.C: In 2021, I am excited to continue in assisting more affordable housing buildings go solar throughout New York City while developing research to advance this process.

J.P: I’m excited to see what the new administration will do to accelerate our transition to renewable energy,  and how it will ensure that environmental justice communities have access to its benefits. I am hoping for new incentives, legislation, and funding that allows more projects to be developed, particularly in urban communities of color.

M.F: I’m excited to support NYC buildings in meeting the new requirements about solar for new construction. It’s an exciting moment to see NYC taking leadership on addressing climate change, and it’s also not an easy world for buildings to navigate. Offering technical assistance is one way that our organization can help  the city’s transition to renewable energy, especially focusing on supporting affordable housing break into solar energy.

P.O: I’m most excited to see the number of residential housing installations increase as well as how we can help keep affordable housing incentives strong in the wake of step-downs.

S.C: I am excited to continue working alongside José, HCS Solar Researcher and Program Manager, in support of his research surrounding just transitions. Through this research, I am looking forward to learning more about the role of intermediary organizations (like Solar One) in moving us toward a resilient and inclusive green economy.

 

Resilience and Batteries

Resilience and batteries. While the combination of these two terms may sound foreign to the average ear, for those in the solar and renewable energy sector, the two are almost inseparable. In Here Comes Solar’s (HCS) first installment of our “Solar Powerhouse Spotlight” series which highlights leaders in the field and community, we had the opportunity to catch up with Derek Nelson, former Senior Associate of HCS’s Resilient Solar Team and current Renewable Energy Project Manager at the New York Power Authority (NYPA). We chatted about resiliency within an urban setting, the evolution of the renewable energy field, his tenure at Solar One, and how New Yorkers can pave the way for solar energy initiatives in their communities. 

HCS: The solar, renewable, and clean energy solar field is one of innovation and growth.What was the driving force behind your interest and passion for solar? Was there anything that attracted you to exploring this sector?

DN: Honestly, my interest in the environment and climate change is driven mostly by my love of animals. I studied primate evolution in college, but made the switch to clean energy policy and advocacy when I realized the gorillas I was studying were on track for extinction by the time I hit middle age. Helping prevent that extinction started to feel much more important than understanding their evolutionary history. That could wait. 

HCS: From your time at Solar One, was there a resilience, battery project, or aspect of your role that you felt a strong connection with throughout its development and implementation?

DN: I loved every opportunity I had to show people just how excited they should be about batteries. It’s hard to overstate how transformative they can (and hopefully will!) be for the way we generate and consume electricity, but it’s also hard to describe that transformation in clear terms. I really enjoyed trying to tell a simple, compelling, and fun story about the energy storage revolution to anyone who would listen.

HCS: What will you miss the most about Solar One (aside from creating informative battery videos)? 

DN: The camaraderie with my brilliant, kind, and feisty colleagues. It’s an incredible and never-boring group of people, and I’ll dearly miss playfully arguing with them about every last thing (especially about how important nuclear power is!).

HCS: With respect to your new role at NYPA, is there something you are excited to learn and dive deeper into?

DN: I’m really excited to transition from a focus on smaller batteries that power individual buildings to larger batteries that power the grid itself. Both forms of energy storage are vital to the clean energy transition, but I’m particularly drawn to the potential of large-scale batteries to replace gas-fired plants in New York.

HCS: What do you envision will be the future of solar and renewable energy in NYC? How can fellow New Yorkers contribute to the resiliency of solar in their communities? 

DN: Every New Yorker should either have solar on their roof or, if that’s not feasible, subscribe to a community solar project. To improve resilience, though, they will have to get more creative, since batteries remain expensive and difficult to site in NYC. I think the solar plus storage projects deployed at community facilities with Solar One’s help will be the first of many in the City. After these are built, I hope they will inspire other communities to push for resilient solar at their own libraries, schools, and emergency response organizations.

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