When developing community solar business models that deliver meaningful benefits to subscribers and community members, having the right partners at the table can make all the difference. The sizable team that pioneered community solar at the New York City Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) Queensbridge Houses worked together to overcome multiple challenges and meet an important goal of ensuring equitable access to the benefits of community solar.
NYCHA’s mission is to provide safe, affordable housing for low-income New Yorkers and facilitate access to social and community services. As part of its 2021 Sustainability Agenda, NYCHA committed to host 30 MW of renewable energy by 2026. NYCHA planners designed its community solar program to provide benefits for residents, such as bill savings and workforce development, while generating revenue for the Authority. By leasing rooftop space for community solar to third-party developers, NYCHA staff believed they could meet all of their goals – and more.
One of the first NYCHA sites selected for community solar was Queensbridge Houses, a campus of 26 residential buildings and two community centers across two public housing developments–Queensbridge North and Queensbridge South–in Long Island City, Queens. Queensbridge Houses is home to 6,000 residents and is also located in the shadow of the Ravenswood Generating Facility, a gas-fired power plant and the city’s largest power generator.
NYCHA staff have deep experience in developing innovative partnerships. They partnered with Sol Purpose, a public benefit development company with a mission to further renewable energy development that serves the public interest, as the project developer. Sol Purpose supported NYCHA in gathering additional partners that all aligned on a mission to serve the public through clean energy, including:
- Sunwealth, a public benefit company that develops market-based solutions to create a more inclusive solar economy, financed the project, provided project development support, and serves as the long-term owner-operators of the solar arrays;
- Bright Power was engaged as the project’s engineer;
- Venture Solar was the solar installer;
- Green City Force, an AmeriCorps program that prepares young adults who reside in NYCHA properties for careers through green service, provided community engagement and workforce training;
- Solar One, a green energy education center in New York City, worked with Green City Force to develop the training curriculum.
- Arcadia and Solstice provided the project’s customer outreach and subscriber management tools.
Importantly, all partners were aligned on one goal: the project needed to be fair and balanced for all parties and deliver benefits to the community solar subscribers as well as the building owners, developer, installer, investors, and the Queensbridge Houses residents themselves.
NYCHA agreed to lease the roof space on Queensbridge Houses to Sunwealth, who maintains the solar panels with the support of the other partners. By the time the installation was substantially completed, the Queensbridge Houses community solar project was fully subscribed by over 470 households across the utility territory, 100 of which are verified low- to moderate income (LMI) households, exceeding the project’s goal of at least 20% LMI subscriptions.
For NYCHA residents who do not pay their own electric bills, the project team found another way to drive benefits for residents: workforce development. A cohort of NYCHA residents received in-person solar installation training and OSHA 30 certification. Thirteen residents, a majority of which live at Queensbridge’s public housing, were brought on as full-time employees with benefits over the year-long installation. At the end of construction of the Queensbridge solar projects, Venture Solar extended contracts to five of these residents.
With the Queensbridge Houses community solar installation up and running, the project partners agree the project has been successful. The community solar project is cashflow positive and the lease revenue paid to NYCHA is dedicated to operations at Queensbridge North and South. The project remains fully subscribed and continues to deliver a 10% bill reduction to all subscribers.
NYCHA now has several more community solar projects in the works, with the next projects dedicated to providing 100% of its subscriptions to LMI households. NYCHA’s staff also aims to subscribe more of its direct-metered tenants to community solar projects. They also plan to expand pathways to clean energy careers for residents.
NYCHA has been a member of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Community Solar Partnership (NCSP) community since July 2020 and is an active member in the Multifamily Affordable Housing Collaborative, receiving peer learning and technical assistance to evaluate and develop community solar projects across its housing portfolio. Sunwealth joined NCSP at the recommendation of current partners in April 2021, just after closing on its second NYCHA deal. Sol Purpose, Solar One, Arcadia, and Solstice have all also been members of the partnership since 2020.
Across the country, organizations like NYCHA face barriers to community solar. NCSP is designed to leverage peer networks and free, on-demand technical assistance to overcome persistent barriers to expanding community solar access to underserved communities. NCSP had over 700 members from over 450 partner organizations. Join NCSP today.
Read more from the National Community Solar Partnership Blog, which features stories about the program, its partners, and projects that support access to meaningful benefits of community solar for all Americans.