The Greening of the Grinnell Co-op

Sept. 19, 2018

The lordly, triangular Grinnell building in the Audubon Park Historic District in Washington Heights is known as “the Dakota of the north.” Though the building is more than a century old, the nine-member co-op board embraced a new strategy in its drive to reduce the carbon footprint and save shareholders money.

The Grinnell is not just going solar – it’s going community solar. The 83-unit co-op has installed a 320-panel photovoltaic (PV) system and is awaiting final Con Edison approval to throw the switch. Once the system is operational, it will harvest approximately 112,000 kilowatt-hours of energy from the sun each month – approximately 40 percent of the building’s total electricity usage. Under the community solar model, that power is sent into the Con Ed grid in exchange for energy credits, which are then divvied up among shareholders, resulting in savings on the electric bills at the individual unit-level. With traditional multi-unit solar projects, the energy credits are tethered directly to the building, which in turn uses the credits to defray the electric bill in common areas, such as lobbies, hallways and elevators.

“The idea for solar has been percolating for years,” says Alan Gardner, a lawyer who chairs the Grinnell’s green committee and serves on the co-op board. Last summer, Bright Power proposed the community solar project to the Grinnell board. After the treasurer presented a detailed assessment to the board, it voted last fall to move forward with the project.

Before that, Gardner says, there’d been some resistance from board members who feared that the solar project might interfere with an extensive capital plan underway. “The concern,” he says, “ was that the cost of the new project might get in the way of the current plan’s budget.”

The Grinnell’s solar array was designed and installed by Bright PowerHusna Anwar, the Bright Power project manager who oversaw the installation, says that the co-op can expect a full return on its investment in a little over seven years, “not including tax incentives.” Once the investment is recouped, Gardner estimates shareholders should see savings on their monthly electric bill between $50 and $100.

But how to pay for the solar installation? “We had to persuade the board that there was a way to finance this project without compromising other work that we already had in place and that might come down the pike,” Gardner says. He adds that the board was averse to raising maintenance or hitting shareholders with a major assessment. “So we used building funds to create a loan to pay for the project. The community solar credits will pay off that loan. For the shareholders, it’s kind of invisible, though their savings are delayed. In a sense, this creates Grinnell shareholder ownership of the project.” Gardner declines to disclose the total cost of the project.

The Grinnell is Bright Power’s 42nd installation, with another 26 in the works. Anwar says the building’s height – just under 100 feet – proved to be an advantage. “If [a building] is too low it’s a concern, because of shading from other buildings around you,” she says. “You’ll lose a lot of solar capacity by having the sun blocked out most of the year. The Grinnell is a big open building with no surrounding buildings taller than it.”

All of which spells a greener footprint for the Grinnell and greener pocketbooks for its shareholders. Says Gardner, “We wanted to show people they could actually do solar in a way that could save money on their individual unit costs. It’s a double-e win: environment and economics.”

PRINCIPAL PLAYERS – ROOF SURVEY: IMTI & Energy Systems. SOLAR DESIGN AND INSTALLATION: Bright Power (project manager Husna Anwar). STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: Third-Party Roof Assessment. SUBCONTRACTOR: Tectonic Engineering & Surveying. PROPERTY MANAGER: Century Management (Jeffrey Herskovitz). ATTORNEY: Emanuela Lupu, associate at Spolzino Smith Buss & Jacobs.