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Solar city


The largest solar power system in the City of Rochester is tucked unobtrusively behind the Bausch + Lomb building on North Goodman Street. The 3,600 glass-and-metal panels at the corner of Northland Avenue and Lyceum Street sit at the end of a quiet neighborhood and are partially shielded from view.

The Bausch + Lomb system is, for now, unique because of its size. But its low-key presence mirrors the quiet-but-growing presence of solar in the city.

Over the past decade, more than 141 home and small commercial solar power systems have been installed in Rochester, according to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. The installations vary from the solar panels on the county's crime lab to the system that Burt and Paola Betchart installed on their Beechwood neighborhood home.

"The sooner we can get to the point that we're not emitting as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the better off we'll be," Burt Betchart says.

Solar's presence in Rochester will almost certainly continue to increase. The Solarize the Flower City campaign has been holding regular meetings for residents of southeast neighborhoods to learn about residential solar; organizers plan to expand to other parts of the city next year. The campaign is a partnership between some local nonprofits, solar installers, the City of Rochester, and NYSERDA.

The group has also negotiated discounts with installers that, when combined with state and federal subsidies, make it drastically cheaper for a homeowner to buy and install a system.

And city officials are working to change the zoning law to allow developers to build solar arrays on certain lots zoned for manufacturing use, though with some caveats. The change would clear the way for developers to build larger solar arrays on brownfields, putting the troubled properties back into use and providing a source of inexpensive, low-carbon energy.

A city project is driving the zoning change. Officials want a developer to build a solar power system at 1655 Lexington Avenue — a former dump site owned by the city — and then sell the generated electricity to the city. Officials publicly solicited proposals for the project and are now reviewing the submissions.

Burt Betchart has been interested in solar power for a long time; he's a physicist and says that he enjoys learning how the technology works economically and scientifically.

He had discussions about solar in social settings, as well as with advocates and installers. And the more he learned about the systems and their economics, he says, the more his interest grew.

He and his wife decided to install solar not long after they bought their house in March 2014. By January, they had a 16 panel, 4.4 kilowatt system operating. The system and installation cost $18,000, but after state and federal incentives, Burt Betchart says, the couple paid $5,000.

Historically, there's been a perception that city houses aren't allowed to have solar, or that the dense nature of cities doesn't lend itself to solar systems. But that's wrong, at least in Rochester.

The city streamlined its permit process to encourage installation of solar power systems on houses, and Betchart says that getting the necessary approval was straightforward.

For solar panels to work well, they need to have good exposure to sunlight, and a south-facing roof is usually preferred. That's a basic fact that holds true whether the panels are installed in rural or urban areas. Betchart's house has good southern exposure, he says, so placing the panels was simple. Half are on top of the house's front porch, while the other half are on the roof.

The installer, Ontario-based Sustainable Energy Developments, initially estimated that the Betcharts would recoup their investment within 10 years through electricity cost savings. But it may happen sooner.

"I monitor it pretty closely," Burt Betchart says, "and it's been performing better than promised."

Solarize the Flower City has been working to show city residents that solar is feasible for their homes, churches, and businesses. Through the effort, 56 households have had solar assessments, says Susan Spencer, the president and founder of ROCSPOT, a local solar power advocacy organization and Solarize partner. Spencer says she can't disclose how many installation contracts have been signed.

Homeowners who sign installation contracts through the Solarize campaign get a 20 percent discount on their systems. The organizers and installers have negotiated an additional 6 percent discount that ends on October 15.

An average 6-kilowatt home system costs around $25,000 off the shelf, Spencer says. But between the Solarize discounts and government tax credits, she says, the price would be knocked down to around $7,500. The homeowner, on average, would recoup that cost in six years through electricity cost savings, Spencer says.

City officials also expect that state incentives will lead to more interest in large solar arrays, which is one of the reasons they're revisiting the city's zoning laws.

Bausch + Lomb was able to install its solar plant because it's considered a secondary use of the company's property; the building is the main use. Current city zoning laws do not allow solar arrays as a property's sole or main use.

But proposed revisions to the city's M-1 Industrial Districts, which are manufacturing areas, would clear the way for some larger-scale, standalone solar installations. The changes would allow solar as the primary use of M1 properties, as long as the developer can show that the sites aren't viable for manufacturing use. The developer would have to apply for a special permit from the city.

City Council members will hold a public hearing on the zoning changes on September 16. They'll most likely vote on the legislation the same night.

"The state is encouraging these larger systems to be installed, so we want to be ready for if a developer wants to install a system in the city in an M-1 district," says Anne Spaulding, the city's sustainability manager. "We need to make that possible because obviously we're in favor of renewable energy."

The city also has to be ready for its own project on the 10-acre Lexington Avenue site. Officials sought proposals for a system with a generating capacity of up to 2 megawatts, with the understanding that the city government would purchase all of the electricity.

Local governments across the Rochester region use a similar approach. The Wayne County town of Williamson leased its closed landfill to a developer who built a solar array and sells the electricity to the town.

The panels started generating electricity in December and should offset most of the town government's energy use. Supervisor James Hoffman said that he expects the town to save approximately $1.5 million in electricity costs over 20 years.