This Tuesday June 7, under a powerful sun and the occasional relief of clouds, the Human Impacts Institute (HII) hosted Let the Sun Shine In!, part of HII’s East River State Park Summer Series.
We welcomed special guest Justin Strachan, who works at Sustainable CUNY (which implements many federal and state solar initiatives and grants in NY) and is one of five ‘Solar Ombudsman’ (i.e. go-to people for all things solar) for New York State. He is also involved in community solarize or solar group discount efforts to help expand sustainable and cost-effective financing options for the installation of small and large scale PV systems across the State, similar to the NY-Sun's state-wide Community Solar NY initiative.
There’s a lot to talk about in the world of solar PV (solar energy’s so hot right now!), so we started with the basics, joined by a few of our friends from the Brooklyn AHRC.
Firstly, PV is short for photovoltaic (photo = light; volt = electricity), and describes the process of taking energy from sun and turning it into usable solar power. This graphic demonstrates how solar rays make their way into the power grid and get distributed to power users and suppliers.
Each solar panel is made up of photovoltaic cells (remember: light energy) connected by wires, which conduct the energy to a central output. We had a chance to have a more detailed look using HII’s own solar panel, or rather, our collapsible solar panel (on wheels!) and attached generator.
The workshop participants got to touch the solar cells on the panel, which are made of silicone, and smooth and somewhere between hexagon- and square-shaped. Justin explained that the panel placement on each of the lights is very efficient, because when solar energy travels less distance, less energy is lost in transportation.
A collection of panels is called an array, which we had a good example of at the Park itself, which has more than 20 solar-powered lights. They are also a good example of ‘Distributed Generation’ - where energy is
generated locally (as opposed to a power plant producing energy 100 miles away and then transmitted to your house or office). This kind of system can also be helpful when there are power outages, because they don’t rely on the grid.
When the question of whether or not there is enough solar to provide NYC with a substantial quantity of sustainable energy, Justin told us that enough solar energy hits the surface of the earth every minute to supply the country for a year. All of our minds were blown (or rather, electrified)!
While it's true nature of existing infrastructure (i.e. shade, height, zoning restrictions) and policy make blanketing NYC under one enormous solar panel impossible, but there is still much untapped potential for expanding NYC’s solar energy power. For example, Sustainable CUNY’s amazing NYC Solar Map, a citywide, GIS-based database of information about potential for solar energy on individual properties shows us this screen shot of a nearby building, and calculates an annual savings potential of over $87,000.
(And in more exciting news, SolarCity is now building what will be the largest solar manufacturing site in the U.S. in Buffalo, NY.)
There’s also an increasing amount of affordable financing options - from on-bill financing to tax rebates to leasing your roof to solar companies.
And as Justin Strachan pointed out: solar energy not only has the potential to “change the energy landscape” but that change is happening right now. Don't you want to be part of it?