Where does the time go? It seems like just yesterday that Stephen was writing about Solar One’s ambitious Solar Two Arts and Green Energy Education Center. But it wasn’t — it was May of 2007, actually, which meant that Lehman Brothers was still in business, the Mets were still in contention for a playoff spot, and Lady Gaga was not even close to being a thing yet. (On a side note, the fact that it seems like I haven’t posted on gbNYC since May of 2007 is not at all important) One thing has remained the same since then, though — Solar Two still exists only in the form of the rendering seen above. Solar One is still raising the $12 million cost of the LEED Platinum structure, and the irradiated patch of former landfill on Stuyvesant Cove that was to be Solar Two’s home is not yet home to anything but a construction site. Does this mean anything, other than that it remains difficult to attract funding for green building demonstration sites? That depends on how you look at it.
Solar Two is an exceptional case notably because it is (as the name says) an arts and green energy education center. But while the project has lagged somewhat, other solar-enhanced buildings — commercial and residential alike — have taken their places in the skyline over the last few years. We’ve had our issues with solar panels here at gbNYC — they’re a good idea and an increasingly impressive technology, of course, but also seemingly as symptomatic of LEED Brain add-more-stuff-to-make-it-more-greener excess as anything in the green building field. But while they’re certainly not catching on to such an extent as to seriously impact New York City’s energy mix, all those new solar-enhanced buildings are getting harder to ignore.
At Txchnologist — which is a green building blog sponsored by GE, and therefore is kind of a story in its own right — the rise (and downfalls) of solar in the city gets a nice going-over. “An increasing number of high-profile projects, from commercial high-rises to mixed- and low-income housing in Brooklyn and the South Bronx, are putting solar panels in every conceivable spot: on rooftops, in vertical walls, and inside the skins of buildings,” Txchnologist’s Matthew Van Dusen. “The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and the federal and city governments offer incentives and rebates for installing solar panels but architects and developers say the drive for green architecture goes beyond the financial. Developers at some buildings, such as The Solaire in Battery Park City, see solar as a selling point for the (mostly affluent) buyers they seek to attract… In the past five years, solar photovoltaic capacity in the Big Apple has almost quadrupled from about 1.5 megawatts (MW) to 5.7 MW, according to a recent report called New York City’s Solar Energy Future.”
Which, admittedly, is a drop in the Finger Lake-sized bucket that is NYC’s energy needs, but which is also not nothing. The New York City Solar America City partnership projects that NYC’s solar capacity could expand to 70MW by 2015 — enough, per Con Edison’s usual 1MW = 1,000 homes calculation — to power (takes out calculator) 70,000 homes. Again: not nothing, and something that could offer some bottom-line benefits for solar-equipped buildings given the city’s net metering. Newly approved city laws making it easier for buildings to use rooftop solar — passed last week, and overshadowed by the bigger-deal “white roofs” law; we previously wrote about white roofs here — won’t hurt, either.
But, as gbNYC favorite David Owen notes in the Txchnologist piece, solar panels are — however promising — still more of a status symbol green building technology than an integral part of the city’s green building mix. Complicated permitting, high costs — although the presence of new solar manufacturing facilities in-state could help with this — and a general so-what level of energy contributions have kept solar panels marginal, and may do so for the foreseeable future. We have seen some promising quantum leaps in green building technology in recent years — this is one sense in which 2007 really does seem long ago, in a good way. Only a churl or a Republican member of the House of Representatives would believe that there aren’t more of these on the horizon. But for the time being, what has always been true of green building — that the least sexy technologies are the best ones; that efficiency is more easily achieved by taking things away, rather than tacking them on — remains true. As a marketing tool, solar is already great. As a technology, it’s getting there. But as a game-changer in the New York green building scene, it’s still mostly promise — and not much more of a finished product than Solar Two.