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Solar in Electricity’s Birthplace

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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New York City has been called the birthplace of electricity itself. In 1882, Edison’s Pearl Street Station in lower Manhattan became the country’s first central power plant, bringing 800 incandescent light bulbs to life.  Today, New York City draws its power from a mix of far-flung fossil fuel, nuclear, and renewable (primarily hydroelectric) energy resources. But, this could change as the state’s legislature passes a round of incentives aimed at encouraging new solar PV installations in the state.

Earlier this summer, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced the NY-Sun initiative, which will give out $107 million in incentives for new solar power installations. Also in August, the state passed multiple bills aimed at making solar power more affordable for individual homeowners. The new legislation included statewide tax credits for solar equipment leases and power purchase agreements, statewide sales tax exemptions for commercial solar equipment, and an extension for the real property tax abatement in NYC for solar installations.

To further encourage expanded use of solar power, New York City recently unveiled a tool that estimates the solar potential for one million buildings within city limits.  The interactive New York City Solar Map (hosted by The City University of New York) provides users with access to these data, along with drawing tools and even some financial information. These tools are meant to enable users to evaluate potential sites for new solar installations.

The solar potential data used in this map came from planes equipped with light image detection and ranging (Lidar) systems. This type of aerial laser is able to gather information regarding the shape, angle, size, shade, and elevation of rooftops as its host plane flies over the city. According to analysis of these data, about two-thirds of the city’s existing structures are suitable for solar panel installations.

If the city was able to install existing solar panel technology on all of its rooftops, it could generate up to 5,800 Megawatts (MW) of peak power. This is more than 40% of the city’s peak electricity demand. Today, the city is home to about 11.5 MW of solar PV across 560 solar installations.

Melissa C. Lott About the Author: An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy. Follow on Twitter @mclott.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Bob_CA 12:23 pm 09/25/2012

    The birthplace of “electricity itself” has to be the laboratory of Alessandro Volta at the University of Pavia in northern Italy. It was there the first chemical battery was invented that provided a source of steady DC current. There’s a lot more to electricity than what comes out of the wall.

    Incidentally, a little research might be in order. NYC was not the first place where electricity was distributed (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_power_industry), but at the very least, get the year right. The Pearl St. plant opened in 1882, not 1962 as you wrote.

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  2. 2. jh443 5:36 am 09/26/2012

    I presume “PV” means photovoltaic.

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  3. 3. MoEnergySci 9:29 pm 09/26/2012

    Does the calculation of potential PV include rooftops that are being used for other things (like rooftop gardens) that would prevent solar panels form being installed?

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  4. 4. Melissa Lott 9:31 pm 09/26/2012

    @Bob_CA – thanks for pointing out the typo in the post. It has now been fixed.

    @jh443 – yes, PV means photovoltaic.

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  5. 5. ymihere 12:28 am 09/27/2012

    @Melissa Lott – In regards to your comment too “jh443″ stating “yes, PV means photo-voltaic.” I believe jh443 was more poking fun at the writer who wrote the abbreviation without saying what the abbreviation meant before using it ongoing throughout the rest of the article. EX: photo-voltaic (PV)

    In the writers defense though they did hyperlink it for that same purpose which isn’t really accepted by the grammar snob community yet. Which is not to say its a bad way of doing things and really is a method becoming more and more accepted by those who keep up with the times.

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