EERE Success Story—Empire State Strikes Back: Solar Will Help New York City Rebound After National Disasters

January 10, 2017

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On Oct. 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the country’s largest city with a ferocity reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina. Seawater surged over lower Manhattan's seawalls and highways, inundating low-laying streets, subway stations, and the electrical system that powers Wall Street and most of Manhattan. With more than 5 million people out of power, infrastructure damage, and a historic shutdown of the New York Stock Exchange, the storm quickly became one of the costliest and deadliest storms in U.S. history.

After big storms hit, businesses, government, and community partners often ask: how can we help to prevent damaging power outages like this from occurring again? Sustainable CUNY of the City University of New York (CUNY) saw solar energy paired with storage as a major solution to improving New York City’s resiliency.

New Sensor Queens Solar
A 50 kw project on a commercial building in Queens by Ryan Enschede Studio. Photo by Ryan Enschede Studio and courtesy of Sustainable CUNY. 

With the help of the SunShot Initiative, Sustainable CUNY began work on the Smart Distributed Generation (DG) Hub-Resilient Solar Project, a roadmap to enabling a DG system that’s capable of providing critical energy services during power outages and helping the grid when it is constrained. Even though New York City buildings had hundreds of operable solar systems at the time of the storm, they weren’t able to provide power to the city because like most systems in the United States at that time, they were not connected to battery backup or microgrid systems. Adding storage and microgrid technology seems like a simple fix, but it’s easier said than done. In order to properly deploy the technology, system design, cost, technology integration, codes, and regulations must all be addressed.

In partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Meister Consultants Group, Sustainable CUNY laid the framework for breaking down the legal, economic, hardware, and software barriers to enabling solar+storage use in New York City. Building on the success of a decade-long program to remove barriers to solar and the NY Solar Map and Portal that tracks solar potential and calculates project costs, the team worked with dozens of stakeholders to create solar+storage resources for the city. Based on real-world analytics and situations specific to New York City, the team completed case studies on installing resilient solar systems on critical infrastructure, such as shelters, schools, and fire stations. They analyzed project economics, created retrofit and permitting and interconnection guidelines, and added solar+storage tracking capabilities to the NY Solar Map. Soon, the team will complete feasibility studies and add a new feature to the map that will enable New York residents to calculate the value of adding resiliency technologies to their solar energy systems.

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A 66 kw installation on the Via Verde building in Brooklyn. Photo by Ryan Enschede Studio and courtesy of Sustainable CUNY. 

In parallel with its Smart DG Hub tasks, Sustainable CUNY continues to work with the NYC Solar Partnership, a group supported by the Department of Energy since 2006, and the city mayor’s office. Through Solar America Cities and the SunShot Initiative’s Rooftop Solar Challenge program, the partnership’s work has built support for solar, helping to quadruple New York City’s solar capacity over the past two years and enabling New York to surpass 800 megawatts of installed solar capacity. 

As a direct result of Sustainable CUNY’s work on the Smart DG Hub and the NYC Solar Partnership, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in September 2016 the nation’s first city-level storage target: 100 megawatt-hours by 2020. With nearly 400 solar+storage projects in the planning stages across the city, the mayor’s new target is already paving a clear path toward deploying and approving more resilient photovoltaic systems in the city. Working toward the new storage goal will significantly improve the city’s ability to maintain critical functions during a power outage, reducing reliance on state and federal resources and preserving economic activity following a national emergency.

Learn more about the SunShot Initiative’s Soft Costs program. 

queens solar lumber company
A closeup of the 196kw system by EnterSolar and atop Dykes Lumber Company in Queens. Photo by EnterSolar and courtesy of Sustainable CUNY.