Environment Forum

From Suds to Sunshine in Brooklyn

January 21, 2009

A green contracting outfit based in a former Brooklyn brewery says it’s the first business in a major U.S. city that can sell power back to the grid that it generates from the sun.

New York state gave Big Sue, LLC, which has about 3,500 square feet of solar panels on its roof, the OK to sell any extra power it generates from the panels back to the grid.

For years, homeowners who have put solar panels on their roofs have been able to sell a bit of solar power back to the grid, which has helped them deal with the big costs of buying and installing the panels. For homeowners it can take 8 to 12 years to break even on the initial investment.

New York businesses, which have shorter break-even times on their solar investments due to greater availability of  tax breaks and incentives,  have had to wait until now to get net-metering rights.

But eventually commercial net-metering could help New York deal with growing power demand. Gov. David Paterson said in a press release about Big Sue that businesses with solar net-metering will “relieve stress on New York City’s overburdened” power grid.

David Buckner, the president of Solar Energy Systems, who installed Big Sue’s solar panels, said he has 15 other commercial projects lined up for net-metering, including a bicycle manufacturer and a perfume bottle top maker. (Full disclosure: Solar Energy Systems’ COO is the husband of a colleague of mine.)

Small manufacturers stand to gain the most from net-metering because of the way the law is written, he said.  At least 35 other businesses in the region are lining up for net-metering with other solar installers.

Commercial net-metering by itself is probably not enough to boost shares in solar companies that fell after oil prices plummeted and amid surplus panel supplies.  But with optimism that the Obama administration will move quickly on legislation to boost renewable energy demand, it certainly can’t hurt.

Susan Boyle, the co-owner of Big Sue, said it’s fun to check her solar panel system on Mondays to see how many electrons her panels pushed to the grid over the weekend, when power demand is low from her business and the 24 studios in the building that lease space there.

If the panels have generated more power than her business used at the end of the year she’ll get a credit from the power company toward future bills.  She installed compact florescent lighting and took other efficiency steps in the late 19th century brewery to help the chances.

Oh, and she cleared the snow off her panels after a recent storm so they will work better.

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