That was the conclusion reached at a Symposium hosted July 28 by Community Environmental Center, the Queens-based nonprofit that is a major installer of SHW systems in New York City.
A sizeable group of industry and civic leaders, including Robert LiMandri, Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Buildings, met for three hours in a conference room at the Manhattan offices of Schulte Roth and Zabel LLP and talked about the future of solar hot water systems in the five boroughs.
Also on hand for the roundtable discussion were Richard Klein, founder and CEO of Quixotic Systems Inc.; Ron Kamen, senior vice president at EarthKind Solar; Matt Carlson, CEO of Sunnovations; Michael Colgrove, director of the New York City Office of NYSERDA; Mary Ann Rothman, executive director of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums; Barbara Tillman, senior vice president of Grenadier Realty Corp.; and Rosanne Hoyem of NYC Solar America City.
Solar hot water systems are much in use in China and Europe; Germany, according to EarthKind Solar’s Kamen, installs as many as 200,000 systems a year. The United States has been slow to embrace the technology, although the market has been growing steadily in California, where SHW systems are often used to heat swimming pools.
So far, only a fraction of New York City’s 950,000 buildings have installed solar systems to heat water for domestic or commercial use.
But the executives from SHW system designers Quixotic Systems Inc., EarthKind Solar, and Sunnovations reported that the existing technology functions excellently in New York City’s temperate climate — especially atop buildings that have flat roofs and are 13 stories or lower (according to LiMandri, only about 12,000 NYC buildings are really skyscrapers).
And building owners and managers such as Peter Bourbeau, of PWB Management Corporation, described how installing solar hot water systems in two of his rental buildings have lowered fuel oil expenses as much as 30 percent.
With such positive experiences under its belt, and a wealth of buildings available, what is keeping the industry from taking off in NYC?
Challenges apparently arise when SHW system designers and installers encounter the city’s numerous permits, which can run up the price of an installation. But Commissioner LiMandri indicated that the DOB was addressing the issue and would work with the industry to resolve the situation.
Other considerations also add to the cost. Klein of Quixotic Systems Inc. lamented the expense of shipping solar collectors – flat glass plates that contain the glycol which absorbs the sun’s heat — from manufacturers in California, Germany or China to NYC. As yet there is no manufacturer of solar collectors in the New York Metropolitan Area.
And federal, state and local governments have been slow to provide substantial incentives for installing SHW systems. A White Paper entitled “Solar Thermal Hot Water Systems in New York City: A Strategy for Market Transformation,” co-authored by Community Environmental Center, Quixotic Systems and EarthKind Solar, recommended that “Energy efficiency financing tools, such as the loan fund being created through NYC’s Energy Efficiency Community Block Grants (EECBG) and NYSERDA’s Green Jobs Green New York program, be applicable to SHW systems, and that photovoltaic (PV) incentives be expanded to encompass solar hot water.”
Aside from the need to bring down the cost of a SHW system, the Symposium also addressed the need to publicize the benefits for both the user and the environment. Drew Elliott of Square Indigo Inc., a Brooklyn-based construction company, suggested that building owners doing major rehab work be asked to consider SHW. Matt Carlson of Sunnovations, which designs affordable SHW systems for stand-alone homes of three stories or less, explained that he often encourages a homeowner whose water heater is at the end of its useful life to invest in a SHW system.
Overall, among the men and women participating in Community Environmental Center’s Symposium, there was little doubt that solar hot water is a renewable with a strong future in New York City.
Community Environmental Center is assembling a task force to follow through on the issues that the Symposium raised.