Bluedot Living Brooklyn sat down with Steve from Brooklyn SolarWorks to ask some of our biggest questions about using solar power in a city. The answers were edited lightly for clarity.
1) What makes solar power different in an urban area like Brooklyn, versus somewhere more suburban?
For many years, the residential solar industry has focused on pitched suburban homes where the roof is angled downward. Outside the city, you can secure a building permit and install a pitched roof solar system in a relatively short timeframe (from sale to install could be roughly a month). That is not the case in Brooklyn and other old, densely-populated cities.
In Brooklyn, most of the buildings have flat rooftops that you could easily walk around on. When a roof is considered flat by the city, the permitting process becomes much more complex. We must comply with strict FDNY codes, and often navigate approvals by the City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. We also need to coordinate with ConEdison, which can cause delays. The permitting process can take a few months in the city. The actual solar installation is only one day.
We created Brooklyn SolarWorks specifically to navigate the complex permitting process in the city and make solar easy for NYC homeowners. We developed city-specific solutions like our solar canopy which allow us to maximize the amount of solar you can install on a brownstone or row house. We also do everything in-house, meaning no subcontractors. That allows us to work eventually and skillfully on every project we’ve taken on (2,000 and counting). Other solar companies work in the city, but we are the only flat roof specific residential installer.
2) Solar canopy? What’s that?
The solar canopy is a product we developed that allows NYC homeowners to maximize the amount of solar they can fit on their home.
In NYC, the FDNY control the roof space, they want to be able to run across a roof and not bump into solar panels. You can’t just put panels anywhere you want, which means system sizes are typically small in NYC.
The canopy lifts solar panels up to 9 feet, which allows the FDNY to run below the panels in an emergency. With a canopy, you can almost completely cover the roof of a brownstone with solar — which means even more clean, cheap energy for the homeowner.
3) If I rode my bike in the sunlight wearing a coat made of solar panels, would it charge my phone? How can a consumer understand the square footage relationship to power generated?
Yes, you can charge your phone with solar power! You would need a panel meant for that use, and it would probably need to be about the size of a laptop to charge at a decent rate. There are many small solar chargers out there — some are even built into backpacks these days.
Brooklyn SolarWorks does whole house solar. The panels on the roof delivery electricity to everything in the building. In many cases we can install enough panels to fully offset a homeowners ConEd bill. In some cases, we are limited by the strict building code, and a system may only meet 50% of someone’s need — they would still buy power from the utility company in that scenario.
4) We hear a lot about “solar cells,” but what really are those?
Solar panels are simply a group of solar cells (you can see in the image below). Most solar cells are made of silicon crystal. When exposed to sunlight, they create an electrical charged that can be collected and conditioned to be used by a house or an electric device.
5) When an urban consumer places panels on the roof, does extra power become part of the ‘grid’ or can it be stored for exclusive use? If stored, what is the size and nature of the batteries?
You are not allowed to store your solar power in a battery (yet) in NYC. The FDNY will not allow a home battery to be installed. So, if more power is made than is needed, the extra solar power is sent to the grid, and is used up by the neighborhood. When this happens, a solar owners utility meter spins backwards, tracking the export. In NYC, ConEd will give full retail value for exported residential solar power. If you make too much power during the day, you will use the stored credit at night. If you have excess credit at the end of the month, your credits roll over to the next billing cycle. This is called Net Metering. ConEd does not pay money for solar, its always a kilowatt hour credit that they reward you with (which can offset the cost of your bill).
6) In the collection of solar power, how much impact on the panels is lost if the panels to be inside or out of sight in urban neighborhoods governed by Landmark restrictions? Can the panels work without full sun?
Every solar site is different, and has different shading elements. We calculate the expected power production for each roof by taking a shading analysis, determining the number of panels the roof will accommodate, and the angle/orientation of those panels.
A landmarked home, with a discreet system, will produce slightly less than a non landmarked home, but it really varies.
Panels cannot be fully shaded and produce power, so some direct sunlight for a portion of the day is needed.
To learn more about solar installation in Brooklyn, visit Brooklyn SolarWorks online at brooklynsolarworks.com.