In a quick drive around the Bronx, it’s not hard to notice the shiny black glass that covers more and more roofs in the borough’s north.
The higher frequency of houses going solar isn’t just an illusion. In the last decade, solar energy in America has grown at 50 percent per year. In New York, it has grown by 1,000 percent since 2011. In places like Brooklyn, Queens and now the Bronx, installing solar panels is no longer the fringe home improvement trend it once was.
Though the environmental aspect has, without a doubt, motivated some people to get panels, this exponential growth can be attributed to something else. The most important element for many New Yorkers is the fact that solar saves people money.
Arguably the biggest players in making this happen have been the local and federal government. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has declared New York’s electricity to be carbon-free by 2040. Mayor Bill de Blasio rolled out a similar environmental plan in August of this year.
Of course, these ambitious plans won’t happen by proclamation only, so Albany and New York City have been rolling out incentives to help people go solar at no upfront cost, and save on their electric bill. Even the federal government — whose current administration is notoriously pro-coal — financially promotes renewable energy.
These incentives range from property tax abatements to state tax credits reaching up to $5,000. So far, the incentives have been working — for the most part.
This growth has been substantial, but solar’s percentage of New York’s electricity generation is still minimal, hovering in the low single digits. There is a lot of growth still yet to come. This is where Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio have failed with their climate initiatives so far.
The incentives have certainly helped, but public awareness of these programs is pretty low. Conceivably, if every homeowner in the Bronx knew they could save money on their electricity at no upfront cost, then there’d be a lot more of that black glass on roofs.
But this information just hasn’t fully made its way around yet.
This is where local and national officials need to step up. In places like Bronx County, where the poverty rate is 30 percent and the median household income is well below the country’s average, that money saved every month could really help out families struggling to make ends meet.
Plus with Con Edison’s constant rate hikes, solar will only make more sense as time goes on. These cost increases aren’t independent of solar either. In his recent book on the subject, Professor Bruce Usher of Columbia University, states, “The more solar and wind power built, the less the other sources of electricity are used, making those sources of power more expensive.”
As this occurs, Professor Usher refers to something known as the “utility death spiral.” This is where people with solar use less of the utility’s electricity, casing the utility to lose customers, but still maintain the same costs of doing business. This pushes them to raise prices to compensate for that lost revenue, driving even more people to solar because of the higher bills.
The death spiral continues, making the problem all the worse for a company like ConEd.
Knowing the Bronx is home to U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the mastermind of America’s Green New Deal, it is reasonable to expect the borough to be a trailblazer for renewables. According to The New York Times, however, the Bronx hasn’t capitalized on solar power compared to the other boroughs.
Brooklyn has more than four times as many solar projects installed, even though there are only twice as many houses. The same pattern can be seen when comparing the Bronx to Queens. Despite how much it’s needed, the Bronx is lagging behind when it comes to solar.
As this new decade approaches, there are many new items on the agenda that can help residents of the Bronx save money or fight climate change. But perhaps the focus should be on promoting the initiatives that are already there.
The author is a solar energy consultant.