New York City Reaches For the Sun; But For Now, We're Not Even Close

Last week Mayor Bloomberg announced that the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) would request proposals from private developers to

Last week Mayor Bloomberg announced that the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) would request proposals from private developers to enter into a 20-year deal with the city to buy, install, own and maintain solar panels on city-owned buildings in New York’s five boroughs.

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The goal is to deliver two megawatts (MW) of solar power to city-owned buildings. In 2007 New York City was selected by the U.S. Department of Energy (D.O.E) as one of 13 cities to help build the country’s solar-energy market. As part of this partnership, the city set a goal of increasing its photovoltaic cell capacity from 1.1 MW in 2005 to 8.1 MW by 2015.

This is of course a small drop in a very large bucket. According to Con Ed’s Web site:


New York’s energy use has reached unprecedented levels. For the year 2007, Consolidated Edison Company of New York’s customers used 62,591 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity, which eclipsed the previous record of 61,608 GWh set in 2005. This level of use is more than 23% higher than the 50,837 GWh used in 1997. A gigawatt is a rate of energy production equal to 1,000 megawatts. According to the latest available national data, Con Edison (ED)’s record delivery surpasses the annual electrical usage of the entire state of Colorado (49,734 GWh in 2006) or the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (55,850 GWh in 2006).


I provide these data only to communicate a sense of scale. One gigawatt equals one thousand megawatts. The tiny contribution of solar power is dwarfed by the growth of electrical demand in New York City. Still, you’ve got to start somewhere.

There are two ways we measure electrical power use, annually (as we did earlier) and based on peak demand (as we do in Con Ed’s Peak Load chart). Peak demand is important because you have to provide enough power to meet demand when everyone wants to use it. Like a shopping mall’s parking lot, you need enough spaces for the day before and day after Christmas. In the power business, you need enough power for the hottest day in August. Both peak load and annual use are growing in New York City.

Why is power use growing? It is partially due to population growth but largely due to the growth of electrical devices in our homes. The growing number of computers, air conditioners, Ipods, CD players, TVs, microwaves and videogames are increasing our need for power.

So why is solar making such a pathetic contribution to meeting our power needs? Is solar power for real? The short answer is yes. Solar cells are coming down in price, and government tax incentives, higher oil costs, and fears of global warming are all contributing to the growth of solar power.

New York City provides some challenges to the use of solar power that other cities do not present. While most of the land in New York City sits beneath single family homes, most of the people in New York City live in apartment buildings. Many of our apartment buildings do not have the space and sunlight needed for current solar technologies to provide enough power to warrant investment.

However, the technological base for solar power is starting to change. While we once needed an entire room to house a computer that had less memory than the lap top (or even the Blackberry) you are probably reading this piece on, a revolution in miniaturization has shrunk the world of electronic devices. Many engineers think this will soon happened to photovoltaic or solar technology. Despite the nearly complete absence of federal funding for solar energy research, some of our best scientists and engineers are working to improve solar cells. (Watch a video and read an article about this progress in last year’s Science Daily.)

In fact, G. Pascal Zachary reported in a New York Times article this past February that a number of Silicon Valley’s chip designers are now working on solar cell technology. That piece noted that both solar and computer chip technologies were silicon-based and that to some chip engineers, solar cells were really a type of “chip.” Some solar enthusiasts see solar power as inevitable and cite its impressive recent growth rate as evidence that we will soon be living in a solar powered world.

And even without new technology, other analysts see room for increased use of solar energy in our energy mix.

I agree that solar energy has enormous potential. My engineering colleagues at Columbia tell me that the earth absorbs much more energy in the form of sunlight than we could ever need to power our homes and businesses. The problem is we don’t know how to efficiently collect that energy and store it. The technology of solar cells must become more efficient and practical and the power we take from the sun must be stored in a more cost effective battery.

How do we get from here to there? I think the development of new carbon-free, solar-based energy technology is the single most important scientific challenge the United States (and the rest of the world) now faces. Low cost, decentralized energy would change the way we live. We would no longer be dependent on foreign oil. We would no longer need to pollute the planet by mining and burning fossil fuels. Imagine if all of the power use in your home could be fueled by a set of solar cells that could fit on a single window pane? If you think it’s impossible, let’s imagine it’s the year 1950 and someone tells you that some day you will carry a telephone in your pocket that is smaller than a wallet—and it would work anywhere. Or you will carry 5,000 songs and 150 movies in a machine that is no larger than that tiny phone.

The next President and Congress should put together a big pile of cash, a bunch of tax incentives and then set a moon-landing type national goal for solar power. Currently, the energy companies and antigovernment ideologues have blocked significant federal funding for solar research. If we are to move forward on this, these anti-solar forces will need to be countered by the economic interests of insurance companies and other businesses that are being damaged by global warming and high energy costs. This is a critical moment for America’s technological and economic future. A lot rides on what Congress and the new President manage to accomplish in 2009.

I am grateful for the research assistance of Sara Schonhardt, Master of International Affairs student, Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs

New York City Reaches For the Sun; But For Now, We're Not Even Close