Most of the time, when we think of things being built the majority of hours it takes to complete a project revolves around construction. It is rare that an architect will spend more hours drawing a project than a contractor will take to build it. For residential solar installations, the growth in demand is being met by a regulatory system not fully prepared for the expanding market. As a result, a large portion of the cost for new PVs pays for people sitting at a desk rather than throwing up panels.
I am currently at the tail end of a project that included the installation of solar panels on the roof of a New York City brownstone. In districts where the heights of buildings are not subject to change due to limitations in zoning, photovoltaics can make a lot of sense. Even this array, that can fit on the relatively small footprint of a brownstone, will end up hopefully meeting upwards of 40% of the home’s power needs. The project serves as a great example for where the time and money goes to get PVs up and running. Naturally, all things come with a cost, but a lot of what customers are paying for is not the time to erect panels, but the time it takes to secure legal clearance.
In a way, New York City is both the best and the worst place to pursue rooftop solar. When it comes to an enticing package of financial incentives, Manhattan has done a great job in complimenting the already attractive series of incentives that exist at the state level. Starting with the 30% Federal Tax Incentive, the State of New York offers an Income Tax Credit of 25% of the system cost up to $5,000. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) adds a cash rebate of $1.75/watt on new installed systems. Finally, the City of New York offers a property tax abatement on 8.75% of the installed system cost per year for four years. For those that can afford panels, there is no better time to buy.
On the other hand, building anything in New York is usually more complicated than it is anywhere else. The New York City Building Code is the one that architects and contractors from everywhere outside of New York point to and laugh at with a shake of their head. I suppose even we point and laugh sometimes. It is fair to say that codes are more complicated and thorough in New York than most places on the planet and solar panels find their way into the mix of regulations. Zoning envelopes, fire department access, egress, structural integrity, wind up-lift capacity and electrical systems all fall under the purview of more than one city agency. These require drawings to be made and filed in order for on-site inspections to occur. Con Edison certainly has a say and a tip of their hat is required for filing, not to mention they need to replace your meter with one conducive to net-metering if you want to save any money on power bills. Then, of course, there is all of the paperwork associated with getting the incentives that; some done by the installer, some by the homeowner. When it comes to all of the steps, the hours can quickly add up.
The actual installation of the panels took about two days of work for a pair of guys. In, out, done. We have green power.
The uneven balance of time between background work and actual installation raises the question of how much of this is simply paying for red tape that does not have to exist. New York is not alone in this problem. A recent article points out that “recent analysis indicates the overhead costs charged by installers to account for marketing, permitting, inspection, interconnection, financing, installation, and system design typically account for 30-40% of the total installed cost of a rooftop PV system.”
Capturing renewable energy is a core component of how sustainability can be woven into society. At the end of the day, these practices are making green power more expensive for people that are interested in taking part. Chances are that other forms of energy production at the residential scale face the same uphill battle like small-scale wind turbines or geothermal heating at cooling (though perhaps not in Rhode Island). These kinds of speed bumps stand at odds with municipalities and states that claim to encourage green energy development and have high goals when it comes to Renewable Portfolio Standards. It will take coordination on all levels of government in order to turn this maze of steps into a refined system designed to implement renewable energy as easily as possible–and at a time where government organizations are searching for revenue sources that often take the form of more permits to apply for and more papers to sign.