The Fruit Belt neighborhood on the east side of Buffalo, New York has a long legacy of cultivation. The neighborhood earned its name from the proliferation of orchards and vegetable gardens that sprouted up when German farmers first settled in the area in the 1800s.
More recently, though, the Fruit Belt’s history of cultivation has not extended to the renewable energy boom that has seen solar panels dot the roofs of so many homes across New York. The reason has little to do with a lack of interest in the economic and environmental benefits of solar energy among Fruit Belt’s mostly low-to-moderate income residents. Instead, it has everything to do with economics. “Historically, low income people are barred from participation in renewables because the financial incentives for solar are given as tax credits at both the state and federal level,” said Jon Nickerson, Lead Project Manager with the utility National Grid’s New Energy Solutions division. “Tax credits are claimed on the IRS’s Form 1040 long form. If you’re low income, you’re not filing that form and therefore you’re not able to take advantage of the tax credits. You have no tax-based financial incentive to install a solar system on your home.”
National Grid is working to change that dynamic in the Fruit Belt neighborhood with an effort that will provide lessons about the most effective way to extend the benefits of renewable energy to other low income areas around New York. As an effort under New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) initiative, National Grid’s Fruit Belt Neighborhood Solar REV Demonstration Project is financing the purchase and installation of approximately 100 rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) systems totaling 500 kilowatts at homes around this historic neighborhood. National Grid will own, service and maintain the PV systems for the entirety of their expected 25-year lifetime.
The solar energy generated from these systems feeds directly into the local distribution grid, and those who host the panels on their roof – along with 50 other interested area residents whose roofs were either too shaded or otherwise impractical for solar – receive a monthly credit on their utility bill that is based on the aggregate generation of all the PV systems installed under this project in the neighborhood. Besides probing the best ways to expand renewable energy into low-to-moderate income neighborhoods, the project also provides National Grid with a unique opportunity to analyze the grid impacts of having a significant amount of solar generation in a concentrated area.
Much has already been learned since the project first launched in April of 2016. Though National Grid reached its enrollment goal this past summer and has nearly half of the 100 solar systems installed and generating electricity, the utility’s initial community outreach efforts weren’t well-suited to the community. Rather than trying to raise awareness about the project through email, National Grid found it was far more effective to build trust and interest from neighbor-to-neighbor.
To do that, the utility worked with a neighborhood improvement group called the Fruit Belt Coalition, which recommended encouraging local churches to install solar PV systems. “Once those were up, the local population attending the churches could see the systems on the roof and that helped develop a comfort level that translated into additional enrollment in the program,” said Nickerson.
National Grid also learned just how compelling the bill credit component of the program was to many residents. “The money piece here is persuasive. There are customers who are in arrears on their bills by $10 month. But if they get a $15 credit each month, they can climb out of arrears by making the same payment each month,” said Nickerson. “The ability to climb out of arrears holds significant social value.”
National Grid will commence a full-year study to analyze the grid impacts of the solar once all the systems are installed. But already there are lessons emerging, including some that may indicate the best way to consistently meet the electricity needs of customers even as solar generation varies due to cloud cover and the seasonal duration of daylight. That variation in solar generation has an impact on the grid, but so does having solar energy produced near where it is consumed. “We are a transmission and delivery company, so we buy generation from a source that is some distance away from the load and by the time we get it to customers we lose a few percent because of line loss,” said Nickerson. “In this case, we will avoid the line loss, and that has a monetary value we will quantify.”
All of these lessons from the Fruit Belt neighborhood will provide helpful data and guidance to National Grid as it pursues what the company calls its vision to become the “utility of the future” – the topic of a future article on Utility Dive. By expanding customer choice and pursuing decarbonization, the Fruit Belt solar project hints at the possible services and benefits a future National Grid aims to provide to more and more of its customers.
For those who are already being impacted, the upside is easy to see. “Once the neighborhood clearly grasped the implications of the project and what it meant to them individually, we really saw it mushroom in popularity,” said Nickerson.