Environment / Jobs

Local company harnesses the sun to power the neighborhood

Frida Sterenberg

More than 3,000 panels adorn the roof of a new community solar farm in Port Morris.

On the large, flat rooftop of a low-rise industrial building in Port Morris, more than 3,000 solar panels glimmer, reflecting the sun.

But although this new community solar farm on Commerce Avenue promises cleaner energy, jobs for Bronxites and lower electric bills for subscribers around the city, many locals are unaware of the benefits it says it will bring.

Some residents say they are suspicious that they will incur undisclosed costs if they choose to subscribe to projects such as OnForce Solar. The 10-year old company is centered on E. 136th Street and opened the rooftop solar operation a few blocks from its headquarters in September, with a workforce of 19. They also operate a number of other solar projects in the Bronx and other parts of the city. 

While walking her dog, Diggi, on Lafayette Avenue in Hunts Point, Thomasina Scott, 41, said she recalls receiving “some mail about solar,” but was skeptical and threw the brochure away.

“Companies always have a hidden agenda and I’ve been breathing this bad air for 41 years. It ain’t killed me yet,” she said, but added that if the new company offered attractive discounts and a hassle-free subscription process, she would reconsider. 

Brooke Ruggiero, the marketing manager for OnForce Solar, said that the benefits that would appeal to Scott are there for the taking.

“There is no cost to sign up and no cancellation fee to get out,” said Ruggiero, adding that subscribers receive an average 10 percent savings that shows up as a credit in their Con Edison bill. “Electricity is a basic lifetime need, so it really adds up.”

For now, about 40 percent of the energy generated at this site powers a school in Riverdale and another in Bedford Park. Twenty percent of the power is distributed among low-income homes in the Bronx, and the rest to subscribers anywhere in the city.

Community solar farms can supply power for any customers wanting to participate in the green economy, whether homeowners or renters, since no installation is required. The only condition is that the subscriber be a Con Ed customer.

Some residents say that they would consider going solar for environmental reasons, regardless of whether there is any significant financial benefit. While bringing supplies into El Progreso hardware store on Hunts Point Avenue, the store’s owner Rhadames Arias, 54, said in Spanish that he was unaware that a nearby solar company was competing for his business. Although Arias’ electric bill is not unreasonably expensive, he said, he would subscribe “for the good of the planet, more than any other reason.”

A growing green jobs market is another attraction for the community. According to a job census by The Solar Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the technology worldwide, there were 9,000 workers employed in New York State’s solar industry in 2017, the third most of any state in the country. California was first with 86,000 employees in the industry.

Toby Sheppard Bloch, Chief Ventures Officer for Sustainable South Bronx, which trains and hires workers in green j0bs, said he is optimistic. “Solar jobs are increasingly stable, and we are seeing an uptick in inquiries from solar installers across the city.” Half of the organization’s green jobs program participants are from the borough, he added, and some of them worked as trainees on the Commerce Avenue site, learning hands-on how to install the panels.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. has joined forces with the Million Solar Strong campaign, a coalition of businesses, non-profits and environmental organizations pressuring Gov. Andrew Cuomo to enact policies quickly to help ensure that 1 million households across the state are solar-powered by 2023, including 100,000 low-income households. “New York should take the lead and commit to solar energy,” Diaz said.

Solar energy currently powers 200,000 homes across the state. Gov. Cuomo’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) program aims for 50 percent of New York State’s electricity to be generated by renewable sources like solar, wind and hydro by 2030. 

Sean Garren, Regional Manager for VoteSolar, an independent solar advocacy group, said that the state has not put the necessary emphasis on converting to solar thus far. “The state administration’s goals need to be paired with more practical solutions. We need a bold vision to create more infrastructure in 2019 and 2020 to achieve our goal for 2023.” 

OnForce Solar says that it has three additional community solar farms under development in the Bronx: another one in Port Morris, one in Unionport and one in Wakefield.

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