Earlier this year, New York City reached a total of 8.4 MW of installed solar capacity. This meant that the most populous city of the US had accomplished its 2015 goal set by the “Solar America City” program back in 2008 three years early.
At about the same time the city government announced that the installed solar capacity on municipal buildings has been tripled to a total of 648kW. This was an occasion Mayor Bloomberg used to make the following statement in front of photographs of solar systems on buildings:
“In clean tech, New York City is leading by example and the solar projects we’ve completed will generate clean, affordable energy while cutting our carbon emissions and energy costs – goals that are central to our Administration’s sustainability agenda, PlaNYC.”
Both the news and announcement sure sound fantastic, don’t they? While I am all for celebrating the increase of renewable energy capacity, I also love putting things into perspective. When searching for proper perspective in the world of facts and figures, what’s better than a good old comparison?
Regular Cleantechnica readers and many others are properly well aware of the fact that New York City is a far cry from being a leader in solar energy generation. Looking across the Hudson River to what’s happening in the state of New Jersey would be enough to make this reality clear and obvious, but that comparison would still fall short in terms of showing what’s possible today.
The Unequal Solar City Comparison
To make that point I will compare New York City with a tiny little town in Germany that you most definitely have never heard of, Heiden. (I sure never heared of it up until recently.)
Heiden is situated in the picturesque Münsterland region in the most populous state of Germany, North Rhine-Westphalia. Why did I choose this city? Because, at first sight, nothing could be more ridicules than comparing a metropolis like New York with a small city that has just 0.1% of the population and 6% of the land area.
Another reason why I chose Heiden is the fact that the tiny city is a relatively unknown veteran of the “Small Town Energy Revolution” that is democratizing the energy supply throughout Germany. Heiden scored 670 points in the 2012 season of the “Solarbundesliga,” the “Solar National League” in which municipalities from all over Germany compete. This was enough to make Heiden the #1 community on its state level and #125 on the national level.
So, how does a German state champion with 0.1% of the population of NYC compare to the Big Apple?
Let me put it this way: It’s not only a ridiculous comparison due to the population difference, but it’s also unfair because, unlike New York City, Heiden is actually trying to do its best.
As you can see, the citizens of Heiden beat the good people of old green New York City with 12.2 MW compared to 8.4 MW. To my knowledge, Heiden managed to achieve this without having a solar park outside town. That means that those 12.2 MW of solar capacity come from solar systems on homes, public buildings, businesses, and farm buildings.
The Moral of the Story
As this little comparison has shown, New York is most definitely not leading by example yet. That said, the good news is that there is a huge untapped potential in the city for a lot more solar power that’s longing to be utilized. I am sure that the citizens of New York would love to surpass Heiden in absolute terms as soon as possible, and I am certain that they will… one day.
If the city government were really serious about helping its citizens to achieve that goal, it would do away with arbitrary caps and quaint regulations that stand in the way of a rapid increase in solar capacity. With today’s solar technology, getting more solar on the grid would not even require any form of tax incentives and could actually lower peak load electricity prices for everybody.
This could happen if local and state government officials would show the political will to cut the red tape that blocks independent power producers from selling their surplus power on the grid without having to ask and beg for market access.
I am a close observer of the renewable energy revolution in my home country Germany and around the world. As a full-blooded enthusiast, I spend a lot of my spare time reading about the technological, political, social and cultural developments that drive the renewable energy revolution and their benefits to society. I studied media & computer science at university and work as a freelance graphic / interface designer. I love visualizing complex information, data, & the relationships that connect them to our world.