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Near the Medical Campus, a test: Can solar work in poor neighborhoods?

Schuyler Banks jumped at the chance to have solar panels installed on his mother’s home in the Fruit Belt.

Banks, who was born in the Fruit Belt and built a home for himself there, is part of a demonstration project now underway in the neighborhood that aims to install rooftop solar systems on 100 homes as a way of testing whether solar projects in low-income neighborhoods make economic sense and if they can be duplicated elsewhere.

The $3.7 million project, launched by National Grid, isn’t a social program, company officials insist.

Instead, by installing enough solar arrays to generate 500,000-kilowatts of electricity within a neighborhood just to the east of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, National Grid wants to measure whether that additional local generating capacity can help it avoid making other investments in its power grid and improve its reliability.

“It looks good,” said Banks, a former National Grid supervisor who now teaches business at Erie Community College, of the 5-kilowatt rooftop system that was installed on his mother’s Lemon Street house – the demonstration project’s first installation.

As the project expands throughout the neighborhood, the power generated by the rooftop arrays will be sold into the state’s electricity market. The money from those sales will be used to reduce the power bills of the residents of those 100 homes, along with another 50 homeowners in the neighborhood who applied for the program but were turned down because their homes weren’t suited for rooftop energy.

In all, the program is expected to reduce the electric bills for those 150 households by $17 to $20 a month. But the key to the demonstration project isn’t just the savings. It’s whether National Grid can show that the project yields other benefits to the power grid that saved money for its ratepayers and that the project could be duplicated in other places.

“We look at this as a way to test innovative methods that can drive the adoption of clean energy,” said Paul Tyno, the director of energy initiatives for the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, which is partnering with National Grid on the project.

‘Electrical divide’

The project also would help bring renewable energy to a segment of the population that has been less involved than others in the push toward sustainable energy.

Residential solar energy systems across the country have tended to be focused mostly on moderate- to higher-income consumers. A report by the Center for American Progress warned that, unless financial barriers were lifted, low- to moderate-income consumers would face a wider “electrical divide” that leaves poorer residents bearing the brunt of the costs from outdated utility systems.

Low- and moderate-income residents also tend to pay a higher share of their disposable income toward their electric bills, so reducing the bills of participating households would ease some of the burden on their monthly budgets caused by energy costs. And by making their bills more affordable, it also would help reduce the drain on National Grid caused by consumers who don’t pay their bills, easing a delinquency problem that costs the utility a little more than 1 percent of its revenues annually.

“We think there is a market within our cities that’s not being tapped into,” Elsenbeck said. “We want to see what creates the signal that generates the excitement to bring in new investment.”

Meeting demand?

Evaluating the Fruit Belt project won’t be a simple matter of how much it costs to generate the solar power produced by the neighborhood’s system, compared with what utilities pay to buy power from generating plants that run on conventional fuels, like coal or natural gas.

Instead, the evaluation will consider whether the neighborhood arrays help meet the demand for power on the growing Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus nearby. Will the availability of renewable energy from the neighborhood allow National Grid to save money in the future by not having to make costly investments in new substations or equipment in the area? Can a neighborhood that’s served by a single substation handle the sporadic output from 100 residential solar systems? And finally, what’s the value of generating electricity from a sustainable source that doesn’t pollute the atmosphere?

“Are there different pricing signals or business models to create more of an investment in neighborhood solar, as opposed to the reliance on subsidies,” said Dennis Elsenbeck, National Grid’s regional director in Buffalo. “Can it relieve pressure on the grid, and if it can, what’s the dollar value of that benefit?”

Those answers won’t be known for a couple of years. National Grid currently has 43 Fruit Belt residents who have expressed interest in participating in the project, and the task of finding other residents with rooftops that are suitable for solar power and having arrays installed on them is likely to take two years, said John Nickerson, who is coordinating the project for National Grid.

It also is good for the Fruit Belt, encouraging the type of long-term investment that can bring stability to the neighborhood, and create job opportunities among its residents for skills such as solar installation and roof repairs, said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo.

Solar Liberty, the Amherst solar energy installer that is installing the rooftop systems for the project, has pledged to create five sales and installation jobs as part of the workforce development phase of the project.

“It’s a great first step,” said Nathan Rizzo, Solar Liberty’s co-founder and vice president.

“Solar is definitely needed in low- to moderate-income communities,” Rizzo said. “It allows people to go solar without an out-of-pocket investment and still receive the savings.”

Sparking interest

The project’s backers are hoping that, as the first wave of installations begin and Fruit Belt residents see the panels going up on nearby homes, that interest in the program will increase.

“It’s about building awareness,” Rizzo said, noting that some state incentives for installing solar energy systems can be doubled for low-income residents. “We’ve been trying to push hard with low- to moderate-income customers.”

For Banks, the project’s first participant, the pace of the work has been frustrating. While the solar panels were installed last month, the array wasn’t activated until early August because the final step in the installation process – hooking up a new electric meter – was delayed because of building code issues.

National Grid officials said the delay wasn’t surprising since it’s a new project. They said they expect the code issues to be resolved shortly and that future installations should be faster as the kinks in the process are worked out.

“We’re learning as we go with some of this,” said Stephen F. Brady, a National Grid spokesman.

Banks said he’s hopeful that the solar program, once the growing pains are resolved, will give a shot in the arm to the neighborhood.

“I grew up here. I built a new house here and I stayed here,” Banks said. “The neighborhood is on the rebound. It’s not where it should be, but it’s coming.”

How the program works

National Grid is selecting 100 homes in the 36-block Fruit Belt neighborhood. The homes are being selected from a pool of residential customers who volunteered for the program under outreach efforts that began earlier this year by National Grid.

Solar Liberty surveyed the neighborhood using images from Google Maps and determined that there were 180 homes that met the criteria to have solar panels on their roofs. That included having a roof facing to the south and wasn’t shaded by trees or other buildings.

So far, 43 homeowners in the neighborhood have expressed interest in participating in the program, which is at no cost to the residents.

One criteria that has proven to be a stumbling block for some participants is the requirement that the home’s roof be in good condition. While the program allocates $2,000 for each participating home that can be spent on roof repairs and other needed upgrades, that’s not enough to cover the maintenance work needed on homes that require extensive roof improvements or an entirely new roof.

Making sure a home’s roof is in good shape is essential, since solar panels are expected to generate energy for 25 years or more. The last thing the project’s backers want to do is have to remove those panels years from now because the roof needs immediate repairs or replacement.


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