By Steve Dwyer
With a goal to reach 50% renewable energy by 2030, New York is beginning to see the light. It comes with the acknowledgement that solar-powered initiatives are an ideal way to offload the reliance on traditional candlepower in favor of a continually growing trend of solar.
In late August, New York trotted out a new toolkit to drive solar on brownfields—the advent of which comes at a time when solar-powered installations are occurring at a rising clip each year. In NYC, much of that has occurred at the residential level, and it would be interesting to see if urban redevelopment stakeholders have watched how—on a much smaller scale—those investments have reaped positive dividends.
The placement of solar arrays on brownfields perpetuates the entire spirit of brownfield development tenets that are always seeking to emphasize green building best-practices. Setting the tone for end uses are epitomized by the methods deployed by many brownfield environmental partners, who implement renewable components via green and sustainable cleanup strategies.
Investing in solar can’t be executed blindly, so earlier this summer the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) released new guidance for municipalities developing solar projects on landfills or brownfields, to maximize expansion on underutilized land and the state’s efforts to increase renewable generation.
In New York, new streamlined project reviews from the DEC along with NYSERDA’s guidelines are expected to supplement existing solar development incentives and boost installations.
Those incentives will serve developers quite well: The leasing instructions and templates in the Municipal Solar Procurement Toolkit reflect a lower threshold of environmental review for projects on brownfields and landfills due to recent updates from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
In June, the DEC adopted a rulemaking package to streamline the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) regulations, which doesn’t require contractors to make formal assessments of environmental impacts of solar projects on brownfields. As the first update to SEQR in more than two decades, the changes, including the brownfield component, will take effect January 1, 2019.
Once the SEQR updates are in effect, commercial solar installers or contractors will be able to expedite a once arduous, protracted process. That’s because going forward they can dispense with the task of preparing formal assessments of environmental impacts for certain projects, such as adding solar to landfills and brownfields.
In June, NYSERDA also unveiled higher incentives for solar projects on landfills and brownfields as part of a set of changes to Gov. Cuomo’s $1 billion solar incentive program called “NY-Sun Megawatt Block.” The guidelines were presented in late August and are intended to help communities facilitate leases on underutilized land for solar projects.
NYSERDA’s kit has templates for towns to issue RFP’s and other guidance on site identification and considerations. In addition, NYSERDA is conducting a high-level study “to identify priority landfill and brownfield sites across the state,” a NYSERDA spokesperson told the publication Utility Dive.
Utility Dive also reported that the toolkit is seen as an “excellent guide” to bring investments to the state, according to Dan Whitten, vice president of communications for the Solar Energy Industries Association.
“It is always a positive when states and municipalities find creative ways to deploy solar energy so that everyone in the community can access it,” Whitten told Utility Dive.
According to the toolkit, potential goals for a brownfield/landfill solar project range from bringing revenue to towns by leasing public land to providing greater access to solar power through a community solar project.
It’s not certain if brownfields practitioners can learn anything about New York City-based and surrounding-area solar installations, seeing that it’s an apples and oranges comparison. That said, over the past couple years solar investments have been occurring to a large scale at the residential level.
In the context of residential solar investments dating to 2016, the number of projects across the five boroughs rose to more than 5,300 from just 186 in 2011, according to state officials. At that time, there were another 1,900 in the pipeline. The solar boom two years ago was prompted by a 70% drop in installation costs, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, along with the streamlining of government approvals and incentives.
Those lower solar cost trends continue to prevail in 2018, a positive sign for brownfield-level investments to spawn
The New York Times reported in 2016 that most of the city’s existing solar projects were occurring in single-family houses on Staten Island, but townhouse owners in Brooklyn had jumped on board the opportunity as well—along with owners of apartment buildings in the Bronx and Queens.
Two years ago, Gov. Cuomo had called for half of the state’s electricity needs to come from renewable resources by 2030, while Mayor de Blasio sought greenhouse gas emissions in the city to be slashed by 80% by 2050. To that end, Mayor de Blasio unveiled two years ago a 3,152-panel rooftop solar installation at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as a step toward the goal of generating 100 megawatts of renewable energy on public buildings by 2025.