A Progressive Approach to Solar in New York: The Solar Ombudsmen Part 1

Arlene Haas, JD

Posted by Arlene Haas, JD

Solar-New-York2.jpgWhat accounts for New York City’s and New York State’s major growth in solar capacity? The leadership role of the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Solar Ombudsmen has been critical to the expansion of solar adoption at the city and state level. The streamlining of the solar approval process, as well as reduction in other solar soft-costs, has been part of Sustainable CUNY’s major achievements. As jurisdictions across the country are striving to expedite solar permitting and remove other barriers to photovoltaic installation, the approach taken in New York serves as an important model. Part I of A Progressive Approach to Solar in New York: The Solar Ombudsmen will focus on the Solar Ombudsmen’s change methodology and efforts in New York City.   

Three Keys to the Solar Ombudsmen’s Success

1. Role as Liaison

CUNY’s Solar Ombudsmen act as objective third parties by helping stakeholders collaborate  and keeping them focused on a project’s goals. In addition, as government administrations and stakeholder personnel change, the Solar Ombudsmen remain in place and bring critical continuity to a project. They also build on relationships and processes established in earlier projects to resolve any new challenges that may arise.

2 . Project Based Change Management Approach

The Solar Ombudsmen use a project based change management model that was created under the leadership of Tria Case, University Director of Sustainability for CUNY. The following are some important elements of the approach and examples of how they have been applied in New York City:

Pinpoint a Project with Benefits for a Variety of Stakeholders

CUNY’s Solar Ombudsmen have coalesced stakeholders around important projects beginning with reports that create a foundation for policy changes or tools to streamline the approval process. CUNY examined the potential for solar in New York City, barriers to its growth, and developed recommendations in a 2006 and 2007 two-part report New York City’s Solar Energy Future - Part I:The Market for Photovoltaic Systems in New York City and Part II: Solar Energy Policies and Barriers in New York City. Stakeholders jointly addressed many of the barriers to solar described in the report such as the high cost of installing photovoltaics in New York City.

More recently, the 2010 New York City Installer Interview Summary provided the results of a survey of New York City installers who were asked to discuss obstacles to solar installation in the city and possible solutions to these barriers. One of the major problems identified in the survey was the difficult approval process at the New York City Department of Buildings, and this resulted in an initiative to improve the way installers interface with the department. 

Involve Key Stakeholders Early in the Process

In 2006, Sustainable CUNY created the NYC Solar Partnership with the Mayor’s Office and the New York City Economic Development Corporation. Many other stakeholders have been brought into the process including state agencies, the local utility, installers, other industry professionals, and non-profits.  

Find Sources of Funding

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grants have been a major source of funding for CUNY’s work on behalf of New York City, beginning with a grant in 2005 for the Million Solar Roofs Initiative and including several grants through DOE’s SunShot Initiative. Some other funding sources have been the City of New York, the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA), New York Power Authority, Consolidated Edison, Inc., and CUNY.

Meet with Stakeholders to Work on Project Planning and Implementation

The Solar Ombudsmen for New York City are currently assigned to two working groups of stakeholders known as the NYSolar Smart Working Groups: 1) New York City Permitting and Interconnection Working Group and 2) New York City Financing Options Working Group. The Solar Ombudsmen provide guidance to each working group and assure the completion of tasks for each working group’s projects.

3. Development of Practical Tools

The Solar Ombudsmen’s work has resulted in the creation of critical tools supporting solar installation in New York and expediting the approval process.

NYC Solar Map

The Sustainable CUNY solar team led the effort to build the NYC Solar Map, a groundbreaking online tool released in 2011 that calculates the potential for solar at any location in the city and a photovoltaic system’s financial benefits, including available incentives. The NYC Solar Map also shows current solar installations in the city and provides advice on the necessary steps for installing solar.  

Crucial to the NYC Solar Map’s development was Sustainable CUNY’s ability to draw on their in-house technology experts, partner organizations and contractors to collect and analyze the mapping data, as well as build the interactive platform for the NYC Solar Map.

New York City Solar PV Standardized Checklist of Filing Materials & the NYC Solar Permitting Process Guide

The development of the New York City Solar PV Standardized Checklist of Filing Materials and the NYC Solar Permitting Process Guide were significant projects led by the Solar Ombudsmen and both are available online. The New York City Solar PV Standardized Checklist of Filing Materials assists in streamlining by providing a complete list of the forms and other documentation necessary to complete the city’s processes for permitting and interconnection.

The checklist is organized by the four entities requiring submittals: Department of Buildings, Fire Department, Con Edison and NYSERDA. Helpful tips and listings of required signatures are also contained in the checklist. Most, if not all, of the required documentation may be submitted online.

To accompany the checklist, a complete guide for navigating the permitting part of the approval process, the NYC Solar Permitting Process Guide was created. The guide walks the installer through all the steps in the permitting process, including instructions for using the online tools for the permit application.  

Bringing Change to New York State

Building on their successes in New York City, the Sustainable CUNY and the Solar Ombudsmen have brought their approach to New York State which has its own unique challenges as a home rule state. Read about the Solar Ombudsmen’s work in New York State in an upcoming post: The Solar Ombudsmen Part II: Expanding Their Successful Approach to Solar in New York State.



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