Solar Energy Provides Rays of Hope

Is it possible to transform Providence’s rooftops into a renewable-energy hot spot?

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

With plenty of rooftops, cities would seem ideal places for taking advantage of solar energy. Imagine a sea of solar panels spread out across Providence’s skyline. Rhode Island’s Capital City transformed into an urban solar field.

All of these renewable energy-producing arrays would help our embattled environment catch its breath after centuries slathered in fossil-fuel particulates, pollution and gases. A sea of rooftop solar panels also would help lessen the heat-island effect that plagues so many urban areas. A recent study by the University of California, San Diego showed that solar panels act as roof shades, keeping a building up to 5 degrees cooler during the day.

But solarizing Providence’s rooftops would admittedly be ambitious and definitely expensive. The idea, however, isn’t without precedent. Both Brown University and Providence College have incorporated solar rooftop panels into their energy infrastructure. The roof of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s John H. Chafee Transportation, Operations and Maintenance Center on Melrose Street is home to a solar array.

Solar panels were installed last year on 16 properties — both residential and commercial — on Providence’s West Side, in an ongoing project spearheaded by the West Broadway Neighborhood Association (WBNA) and supported by the state Economic Development Corporation (EDC).

The program, helped in large part by federal tax credits, makes renewable energy affordable and accessible to property owners through a neighborhood group purchase program.

The WBNA wants the West Side to lead the way as the most sustainable neighborhood in Providence, according to Kari Lang, the association’s executive director. A second round of funding is expected to bring solar panels to five more homes and another business, she said.

Heck, the idea of solarizing our cities can’t be to far-fetched, as some utilities are beginning to lease commercial roof space. Southern California Edison, for example, is leasing enough square footage from warehouse owners to generate 250 megawatts of solar electricity — enough energy to power 162,000 homes.

This past summer, atop an apartment complex in North Hollywood, rows of solar panels began providing energy as part of what supporters claim is the nation’s largest urban rooftop solar program. Called Clean L.A. Solar, the program allows the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power to pay customers to generate solar power across the city’s vast expanse of flat rooftops.

In fact, as solar power continues to become more financially competitive and more prevalent, cities such as San Francisco are turning to solar mapping to determine how much energy could be generated in specific locations or neighborhoods, or even citywide.

In Cambridge, Mass., a team of MIT researchers has created a solar mapping program called Solar System. The program factors in variables that could impact solar energy output, such as roof angles and weather conditions. The team created a solar map of all 17,000 rooftops in Cambridge, with the data stored online. The map shows that if photovoltaic (PV) panels were installed on all of the locations classified as either “good” or “excellent,” the city could generate about a third of its energy needs from the sun — at a cost of nearly $3 billion.

Who would pay?
The economics behind solarizing Providence’s rooftops is the trickiest part of the idea, especially the front-end costs.

“Such an idea would be good for the environment, no doubt,” said Keith Boivin, co-founder of Providence-based BCX Energy. “But it’s all about the dollar.”

Although Rhode Island lags behind the region in solar-energy growth and is ranked 42 nationally for solar electric generation, Boivin believes Providence and Rhode Island in general could have a bright solar future.

But unlike, say, Massachusetts, the Ocean State seems to lack the political will and the collective imagination that is needed to launch and grow a successful solar-energy sector.

Bob Chew, arguably the godfather of Rhode Island’s renewable-energy sector, wrote in an e-mail to ecoRI News that the greatest challenge that would prevent Providence from transforming itself into a urban solar field is the lack of funding provided by the state’s Renewable Energy Fund (REF).

“If they divided up the money that ratepayers pay so that there is more money going to solar, it would make all the difference,” Chew wrote. “Currently, the EERMC (Energy Efficiency and Resource Management Council) gets over $70M and the REF gets around $3M. I would do a 75/25 split with 25% going to the REF.”

The REF is funded through a charge on electric utility bills and payments made by power plants to comply with renewable energy mandates.

Rhode Island has been notoriously slow to embrace the idea of solar energy. Just about any solar installer who has worked or tried to do work in Rhode Island will tell you it’s a cumbersome system to navigate. They also will tell you the state lacks the initiative to transform Providence’s rooftops.

“Rhode Island doesn’t have the incentives in place to nurture the growth of renewable energy in general,” Boivin said. “The residential solar programs in place are pretty decent, but the state’s regulations and incentives keep changing. In Massachusetts, the incentives are there, and they’re not always changing.”

That stability explains why BCX Energy does much of its solar work in the Bay State. “We’ve been turned off dealing with Rhode Island,” admitted Boivin, whose office is on Gano Street, a busy road on Providence’s East Side. “They make it so difficult.”

The lack of established local and state tax credits for solar projects and a streamlined regulatory process would make transforming Providence’s rooftops into a renewable-energy field a difficult venture. But a lack of incentives and daunting red tape aren’t the only obstacles that would have to be overcome.

Sunny side
There’s no argument that the sun shines in Providence, but that doesn’t necessarily transfer into capturable energy that can power TVs, laptops and coffeemakers. It’s not as simple as installing solar panels on every roof.

First of all, as noted earlier, solar projects can be expensive. In Rhode Island, according to Boivin, there’s a five- to 10-year payback on residential solar projects. Also, the cost difference between a kilowatt-hour of electricity produced by solar power compared to fossil fuels in the Ocean State is noticeable. A more level playing field would be needed if the Providence skyline is to be dotted with solar panels.

There is, however, a chance a more level energy playing field could be in Providence’s future. The Clean Energy States Alliance, a national nonprofit organization that works with state officials, federal agencies, industry leaders and other stakeholders to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency, recently was awarded a $1.5 million grant from U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The money is to be used to build a five-state partnership to reduce the costs of solar energy in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont, by creating more streamlined and consistent solar application processes for the region’s 13 million residents.

The DOE’s Rooftop Solar Challenge II incentivizes solar power to make it easier and more affordable. By streamlining permit processes, updating planning and zoning codes, improving standards for connecting solar power to the electric grid and increasing access to financing, the program will help will clear a path for the expansion of solar energy, according to the Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA).

The New England Solar Cost-Reduction Partnership, managed by the CESA, will help build the regional solar market by targeting non-hardware “soft” costs for photovoltaic (PV) electricity systems and increasing coordination across the five participating states. The partnership will refine and deploy innovations developed in Massachusetts and Connecticut during the DOE’s Rooftop Solar Challenge I.

Several municipalities have been selected to participate in this project, including Providence, Boston and Cambridge.

Even if an initiative such as the New England Solar Cost-Reduction Partnership helps make solar energy more financially viable, that still doesn’t address the other obstacles that would keep many Providence roofs free of solar panels.

Building architecture, type of roof, amount of trees, and, of course, location all play important factors in determining what buildings and neighborhoods can support solar energy both economically and productively.

“In the heart of the city it would be difficult because of shading factors. Big buildings cast shadows everywhere,” Boivin said. “You would need a lot of area — a lot of roof space. And two-story buildings would be more cost-effective when it came to running lines.

“Tight neighborhoods with old roofs and lots of trees aren’t going to work well. Ideally, you’d want a pitched roof facing south that is shade-free.”

Installing solar panels on every Providence rooftop wouldn’t be prudent, but it would be sensible if we started generating more of our energy from the sun.