An interview with Chris Collins, Executive Director at Solar One
Can you describe Solar One’s mission and provide an overview of its programs?
We started initially as an environmental education organization. We had a small solar powered building on the East River. It was the first of its kind—back in 2004 there wasn’t any other solar building in New York City. We used that building to educate kids and also for architects who wanted to see a net-zero, high performance building. Over time, we grew out of that building. In about 2010, we started developing a curriculum called the Green Design Lab. We developed this pretty robust K-12 program, and in that program we trained educators to go into schools and teach about energy, food, water, and materials. We’ve been in about 800 schools, and a little known fact is that one in every 283 Americans is a NYC public school student. In 2012, we got two grants to develop high school curriculum more focused on cleantech. Since then, we’ve developed other programs such as Career Clues. It’s a 6-week summer intensive program—students get a stipend and they get a science credit. There’s a whole career mentoring component—it’s geared to juniors in high school. The other program we have rolled out is a training with 11 career and technical educations schools. Those are 2 week intensive programs for teachers in those schools.
I recently reviewed the Bureau of Labor Statistics job report which shows that solar installers and wind technicians are the two fastest growing jobs in the United States. The work Solar One is doing must be contributing to that growth in NYC.
That’s right and for our population, green building operations and maintenance is also a great opportunity. A few years ago, NYSERDA forecast that over the next 5-10 years, about 25,000 jobs will open in that sector because of retirement and attrition. These are entry-level job opportunities as custodians and more. These are solid, good paying jobs. We’ve trained about 3,000 people over the last 9 years. Our workforce agency partners handle placement and they consistently place about 70% of our trainees in jobs. In the last few years, through a contract with the Fortune Society, we’ve been working on Rikers Island with inmates who will be released in the next 12 months. With that program, we’ve trained 75-80 individuals in green construction and electrical.
Can you share a little about your Here Comes Solar program?
NYSERDA hired us in 2014 to figure out how to reduce the balance of systems costs associated with solar in NYC. At the time, the cost of solar materials and installation had come down, but still solar was expensive. 40% of the cost were the soft costs such as customer acquisition and permitting. NYSERDA asked us to look at how we could reduce those costs. We piloted a few things in the Brooklyn row home market. We went out and signed people up for a free solar assessment—375 people signed up. However, only 23 of those projects went forward. We sat down with the installers and building owners to discuss what went wrong. We found that building owners were frustrated and felt that they were kept in the dark. They didn’t get the savings they thought they were going to get, and delays were crazy. The installers said they were never going back to Brooklyn again. They weren’t happy about doing 375 individual assessments; they got a handful of parking tickets; education among homeowners about solar varied. There were really a series of things that made the projects prohibitively expensive. After speaking with both the building owners and installers we looked at ways in which we could chip around the edges a little bit and make the value proposition attractive to both groups.
How has Solar One made solar easier for installer and business owners in NYC?
We knew the single largest reason someone will go solar is if they see it on their neighbor’s roof. We thought that instead of casting a wide net, what if we looked at creating smaller groups of building owners who were geographically located within 2-3 blocks of each other. Perhaps one of them is a stay at home mom or dad and could be the key master for the group so that the installer can do roof assessments all at once instead of scheduling 6 separate visits. We sat down with 5-6 buildings owners within a few blocks of one another and we had a little house party to explain the solar process. We got them to a conceptual yes if the cost was certain. We put together some information and a purchasing group and then asked installers to bid on these ready-to-go projects as a group of projects. We were able to get bids at 15-20% below market for an individual project. Over time, we expanded the model to 9 additional homeowner groups and 125 projects were completed. At that point we knew we had a solution. We pivoted to the affordable housing space, because that’s really our mission. In this market, you may have an affordable housing developer who has a portfolio of 30-40 buildings. We use the same model as we did in the 1-4 family row home space; we do pre-assessments and determine which sites are viable for solar. We put together the packages with energy savings and financing options. We send it out through an RPF process to pre-qualified installers and we’re getting bids in at about 15-20% lower than market. We have about 250 buildings that have gone though, and about another 200 in the pipeline and a huge amount behind that. The icing on the cake is that we are able to convince developers to provide favorable consideration to installers who agree to hire people coming out of our workforce training program to work on the installations. We created 10 jobs last year and this year we’re talking about 21 jobs. It’s a marriage of two of our programs. We did about 10 MW of solar in the last 3 years, and in 2019, we are forecasting another 10 MW of solar.
Solar One is adding an impressive amount of solar to the NYC grid, but I think everyday New Yorkers would say that the city doesn’t have much solar. Would you agree?
I think it’s true, certainly in Manhattan. But that is changing. There is a lot of installation happening in upper Manhattan, in the Bronx, Queens and in Brooklyn. Staten Island is its own thing—Solar City and others are there. (To learn more about Brooklyn solar, check out a past interview here with CEO of Brooklyn SolarWorks, T.R.) We have 450 buildings that are committed to going solar. We’ll have another few hundred buildings in the next year, but there are a million buildings in New York City. So we’re at 600 buildings, but I think the average New Yorker won’t notice it until you have at least 10,000 buildings or until there are some iconic solar installations. That said, solar in NYC is not only possible, it is a financial opportunity for the smart investor or building owner.
How have you seen New York City’s cleantech community evolve? How do you think it can keep evolving?
It’s been really great to see our organization evolve and grow. We’re at the point where each of our programs could really be their own stand-alone organization. Looking more broadly at New York City, it’s been fascinating to see the diversity of energy projects, from rooftop farming to resiliency projects along the waterfront. Offshore wind is another exciting opportunity. I think New Yorkers got it after Superstorm Sandy. Sandy hit, and they now understand the connection between energy and water.
Speaking of resiliency projects—can you talk about Solar One’s new building?
We are building a resilient building on the East River at 23rd Street. We are expecting to demolish our existing building in September. We’ll be having a wrecking ball party September 7th. The new building has been 10 years in the making. It’s being designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group, a Danish firm that’s also designing the East Side Coastal Resiliency project. They’ve designed a resilient building elevated 12’ with a first level of breakaway walls. If there is flooding, the foundation will stay, but water can pass through the first floor. The second floor will be for programmatic and office space. On top of that will be a really cool solar array that looks like a ski slope with lithium ion battery storage. We’re really excited that it will be one of the first resilient facilities built on the waterfront.
What are your favorite cleantech events around the city?
I’m a little partial because we host Clean Energy Connections down at the WNYC Green Space with the Urban Future Lab and sponsored by NYSERDA. Every year, we host the Energy Gang. These are some of my favorite events because they are very well produced and also because they go a little deeper on the issues. It’s more of a 201 discussion vs. a 101 discussion.
Do you have a favorite nature hide-away in or near the city?
My personal favorite is Fire Island, out on the national seashore. I love the water and being there in the summer. In the city, it’s Hudson River Park. The design of that is so well done. The West Side Highway used to be elevated and collapsed in the 70s. The city initially wanted to build an underground highway in the river, but the community opposed that due to the ecological impacts on the river. So they tore down the old West Side Highway entirely and the local community insisted that the city not build another elevated highway. Basically, the local residents undid the damage done by Robert Moses when he cut the city off from the water. Now, instead, we have Hudson River Park. Now the warehouses are gone, and like it or not—all the way from Battery Park to Hudson Yards we have access to the water albeit alongside multi-million dollar apartment complexes. It’s better than what preceded it.