This fall, Sunset Park Solar, New York City’s first co-operatively owned solar garden, will be installed on the roof of the Brooklyn Army Terminal. Community solar projects are growing across the United States, providing much more than renewable energy. Once connected, the almost-two-acre array will feed back into New York City’s energy grid. The value of this electricity will then be converted into credits, reducing monthly energy bills for the 150 Sunset Park households and small businesses who have signed up to be co-op members. Beyond conventional single-family home rooftop installations, the project is a model for urban solar generation that can reduce reliance on fossil fuels and the proportion of household income spent on energy, while creating new jobs on an industrial waterfront. It’s exemplary of everything UPROSE, Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community-based organization, fights for.
UPROSE has spent decades advocating to diminish environmental burdens in Sunset Park while also working to protect people and businesses from displacement. What does it take to achieve “site security” for solar panels amidst such pressures? Urban Omnibus talked with Lourdes Pérez-Medina, Climate Justice Policy and Programs Coordinator, and Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director (recently named one of the world’s 100 most influential people in climate policy) at UPROSE about Sunset Park Solar and its role in a just transition from an extractive to a regenerative economy. With a Green New Deal Resolution before Congress calling for rapid decarbonization to be led by “community-defined projects,” Sunset Park Solar illustrates the power of a grassroots vision for economic and climate resilience.
Why are you building a solar garden in Sunset Park?
The idea for community-owned solar comes out of efforts from the climate justice community to operationalize just transitions. To basically make it possible for our communities to start moving off the grid and to start creating utilities or mechanisms that will help them thrive in the face of climate change. It’s about moving us away from fossil fuel extraction to regenerative energy, but also, it’s supposed to serve as an economic driver for working class communities.
In Sunset Park, which is a working-class, waterfront community, we have been fighting against environmental burdens for many years. We successfully stopped the siting of a 520-megawatt power plant and also challenged the New York Power Authority when they fast-tracked electrical turbines in our community. We have been moving from fighting towards rethinking what an environmentally sound and healthy community looks like. A just transition will move us in that direction, and a community-owned solar garden cooperative is an example of a just transition.
I want to start with the vision, because these projects don’t just pop up out of nowhere. They need context. Sadly, what happens with our ideas is that they get picked up by people with resources and they become something else.
What have been some of the challenges to getting solar going?
In Sunset Park, I think the challenges are economic. The most privileged people in Sunset Park are all going solar, and you see solar panels on a number of buildings throughout the neighborhood. With working class people, there is a commitment to addressing climate change, but the resources just aren’t there. They often don’t own the property, they’re renters. If they own the property it could be that it’s not possible to install panels on the roof without some repairs that would be pricey. The challenges are basic: People have a choice between the maintenance of their home and feeding their family. So, you see that homes that are owned by working class families are not in the same condition as homes owned by people that have deep pockets.
And so Sunset Park Solar is a collective solution to those individual problems. How does it work?
It’s the first community-owned solar cooperative in the city. The partners — UPROSE, Solar One, and Co-op Power — all of us bring different expertise to the table. Solar One provides technical assistance and Co-op Power has the expertise about building a cooperative structure for solar. And then UPROSE is really the community roots and advocate for the development of community-owned renewable energy in Sunset Park.
We are currently in the process of doing outreach to the community to get Sunset Park residents and working-class people benefiting from the project. People can either register through the online platform, or with us. People get qualified with a copy of a Con Edison bill, and then Solar One takes them through the process of getting registered, signing a subscriber agreement. It’s a process that we’ve been building as we go, it’s a very new structure.
What’s the idea behind using the Brooklyn Army Terminal?
We’ve spent years talking to New York City Economic Development Corporation about the property that they own on the industrial waterfront and how it can be used for renewable energy, climate adaptation, mitigation and resiliency — in short, advocating for using the industrial waterfront to address local and regional needs. We have suggested they not respond to the market, but create it. There are some people at the EDC who are seriously concerned about climate change and are trying to think creatively about how to strengthen relationships with communities, and how to do something that’s innovative and that can be replicated and built up to scale. So this is a great opportunity for the NYCEDC to engage in a community-led initiative that begins the work of realizing that larger vision. But this does not happen overnight. The market we need is one that addresses the use of regenerative energy and rethinks an industrial waterfront that is now faced with climate change.
We’re currently entering into a contract with them to lease the roof of the Brooklyn Army Terminal structure. We’re going through the details, lease term agreements, stuff like that.
There are also many conversations going on about collective ownership structures. The fact is that for community-based organizations to be able to tackle this kind of project, they need site control. In a city like New York, which is very real estate heavy, that is amazingly difficult. So, city-owned structures and city properties become a huge asset in this type of development.
A lot of folks compare the work that’s being done in really dense urban areas to other places where people own the property and have control, and say, “They’re doing it, why can’t you do it?” Well, we don’t own the property.
One part of the solar project is a job training program. Could you talk a little bit about that component of the just transition?
Along with the community outreach for membership of the solar array, we’re also tackling outreach to get residents of Sunset Park to go through a jobs training program to enable them to be part of installing the solar array. Half of the people building and installing the solar array are going to be people that have gone through that jobs training program.
You’re building both the physical structure, and the process of the installation and the co-op, as well. Could you describe how community governance of the project works?
We are establishing, along with Co-op Power, a New York-based energy cooperative. Co-op Power has experience managing similar projects in Massachusetts, so we are in the process of working out what the New York City structure is going to look like. We’ve never worked with that model before, so we have to build capacity in order to understand it.
We’re inventing it as we go along. Climate change is basically testing us to come up with governance and finance models. It’s hard. We have energy democracy principles and just transition principles that come out of the climate justice movement. We don’t have all the answers. We have a vision and we are willing to do the work. This gives us an opportunity to at least grapple with the challenges, and figure out what works. Because we know that we need to do something, and it needs to be something that then we can bring to scale to address climate change.
We’re also, luckily, part of a learning community. Lourdes participates in the energy democracy working group for the Climate Justice Alliance, and they’ve created a pool of funding for reinvesting in communities, which basically helps us operationalize models like this. People from all over the country are sharing information and trying figure it out together.
How do you see solar, or community ownership of power, helping tackle other issues?
That’s a complicated question. Even in trying to determine governance, how do we make sure that the people most impacted by climate change, the people who are really struggling, are the ones taking advantage of this opportunity? Because the people most likely to run to the front are those who are most savvy and have the deepest pockets. It is really challenging. A lot of our environmental victories have been used by developers to promote displacement — the greenway and the waterfront park come to mind. Or when we fought to expand the median of Fourth Avenue because our elders and women with babies were complaining that they couldn’t get across. These hard-won amenities are then used to push out those who have lived with the environmental burdens for many years.
Climate change is going to impact social cohesion; it’s going to end up in the displacement of the most vulnerable people. So that is really the thing that drives us to bring amenities to the people most impacted: Other folks will have other resources. It is also a question of raising climate consciousness among low-income people who are struggling with housing, policing, immigration, all kinds of issues. We don’t just do a project because we think it’s great for people to get regenerative energy. It has to be more than that. The community shapes and informs the priorities.
As we’re talking about increasingly moving to a renewable energy economy, this type of project is the example of how a community can participate in that transition, and not be left behind with burdens at the end of the day — both economic burdens and pollution burdens. UPROSE, for many years, has also been pushing for this transition, not only in the city, but statewide and nationally. The Sunset Park Industrial District and Waterfront, being one of the largest Significant Maritime and Industrial Areas (SMIA) and one of the largest industrial districts in the city, can provide the vision and the infrastructure needed to build the transition to a renewable energy economy. And if we’re successful, all the environmental burdens along the waterfront will eventually cease to exist.
What are those burdens?
The New York Environmental Justice Alliance has mapped, really beautifully, all of the burdens that exist, including some of the contaminants that have been there since before there was an EPA. Some of them are really dangerous in the event of an extreme weather event, because they become airborne and they’re carcinogens.
For a long time there have been industrial activities that use a lot of diesel trucks. There’s the Gowanus Expressway, a lot of power plants. But unlike other communities that see them as a problem, we see them as businesses that can be retrofitted, repowered, made adaptable so that the workers are safer and healthier. We see them as part of the solution. The industrial sector, the businesses and the trucks, can be re-powered. We can have a waterfront where container ships can plug in. When people talk about offshore wind benefitting Sunset Park, they usually expect that parts would all come from Europe via ship, and the ship would be parked on the industrial waterfront. And we thought, well, what if instead of just assembling it here, we made it here? What if we get American businesses that make wind turbines to invest in these industrial waterfronts? If the parts come in from Europe and the ships anchor on our waterfront and spew diesel, climate solutions can become environmental justice problems.
We have worked with businesses to retrofit their trucks, we have gotten agreements with power companies to reduce net emissions. We work with small businesses to educate them on becoming climate adaptable. The auto salvaging shops are an example. Environmentalists have generally wanted to close down auto salvaging shops, they malign them. But for us, those are our people. We want them to learn that some of those chemicals are harmful: that exposure is harmful to their health; that if they drop it on the lot next door, they’re creating a brownfield; that some of it can become fugitive dust or projectiles in the event of extreme weather. So that’s how we approach it: This is a business in our neighborhood, these people live in our neighborhood, they don’t have health insurance, they work seven days a week, they don’t have a formal education, they may even be undocumented. But they know how to fix cars. So how do we make sure that they become part of the climate solution? If those businesses disappear then the economic fabric in our community starts falling apart.
A business like Industry City will turn around and say, “Retail and commercial businesses don’t contaminate. Don’t you prefer us to the clunky, dirty industrial?” But we’ve been working with the dirty industrial businesses to make them healthier. There has to be a place where people build for the region’s climate adaptation needs.
How would the solar array scale up as more opportunities become available?
We are working with a variety of partners. What does it look like with a faith-based institution? What does it look like with private partners? All community-owned, but we’re looking at using these different structures. So you can have a business that’s contributing its rooftop — there’s an artist collective in the neighborhood, we’ll be using their roof for community-owned solar. We’ve been working with faith-based organizations to see if we can either use their roof or we can create solar canopies. And the idea behind doing it like that is also to show that you can have a multiplicity of stakeholders and partners all with the same vision.
Lourdes, your background is in architecture and planning. How has that background been useful when you’re navigating this process?
When I graduated from architecture school, I went on to work at a community-based organization in Puerto Rico that had been successful in implementing Puerto Rico’s first community land trust. That helped a historically informal settlement enter into a “formal relationship” with the land, which we know is unfortunately necessary in order to obtain many benefits. I started to think about the “commons” and the issue of speculation, private property, and the relationship of that to collective benefits and social space. How do you actually make social space? Is it through city planning or is it through social engagement? Those questions have shaped a lot of how I approach the work here. Going into city planning afterwards gave me more tools to understand how zoning, public policy, and all of those larger systemic structures work to build the city.
Do you think it’s important that this first solar project is somewhere that the subscriber community is adjacent to? Given the model — where the solar system generates electricity that is exported to the grid, and then subscribers get an equivalent amount back as a credit on their Con Edison bill — in theory the solar garden could be anywhere, for example in Upstate New York. What’s the advantage of having the panels right in Sunset Park?
A lot of the reason that we’re in the situation we’re in is that nothing is visible. We don’t think about where the water comes from when we drink it and brush our teeth. When we turn on the lights, when we turn on the stove, we don’t think about the energy. We go through life passively, taking a lot of what makes our lives livable for granted. Because of climate change, it’s important that a very visible effort is being made. People can’t forget that it’s a crisis. Not to scare them, but to show that solutions are possible. There’s this sense of impending doom, but look at what we’re doing locally to change that. Visibility forces a conversation as to why it’s necessary. For example, we hope to install at St. Michael’s, because it’s a central place in Sunset Park. We wanted people passing on the highway to see the solar panels on a church.
If you go through privileged communities, you see green roofs, you see solar panels. You don’t see that kind of stuff in working class communities, unless it’s in public housing and they have a project to put it in public housing. Visibility is important for that reason too.
Yes, because they become community amenities. And the array becomes something that the community can directly relate to, even though they may not have physical access to it. When people become part of a transition to a renewable energy economy, they have the feeling that their community is building towards that end goal. When you have the experience of going through a community process, seeing years of work go into building something that lives in your community and that you get to benefit from, that’s completely different from just turning on the light. You get to own your community amenities and at the same time understand how infrastructure decisions impact our environment. It’s very important to make the just transition part of our daily experience and a collective exercise. It’s not something that should occur behind closed doors.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.