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Up Comes the Sun

Could the use of solar energy be a key in bolstering our city’s poorest neighborhoods?

For Dr. Susan Spencer and a growing collection of community-driven optimists in Rochester, solar energy goes way beyond being environmentally conscious.

“Our vision is a solar-powered Rochester as a hub of the national solar industry by 2025. And we’re going to do this by getting solar power for every house in the city by 2025. And, correspondingly, we’re going to be working with small businesses, large businesses, non-profits, everyone in the city we want to help get solar power. This is going to put a huge amount of money back in people’s pockets, and it’s also going to reduce the city’s carbon footprint.”

There it is. In no subtle terms, that is the goal for Spencer and her new non-profit organization, the Rochester Solar Powered Organizational Team (ROCSPOT). Spencer doesn’t hold back her pride in solar energy or her prejudice toward existing structures that stand in the way of innovation.

And she is not alone.

“I think what is powerful about the 2025 vision is that it is a unique combination of a clear vision combined with firm pragmatism,” says Jacob Deyo, creator of In the City/Off the Grid, a Rochester-based cooperative business that offers solar installation services and general construction services, while engaging in community development projects and employee training. “It has the clarity and keen direction you see when you have good leadership but it has the grassroots mobilization that can only be found in well- networked collaborations.”

While Deyo’s organization also has a solar emphasis, dig deeper and you’ll find a social mission of creating sustainable micro-farms and housing that requires less financial and energy resources to maintain—solutions in the most impoverished parts of the city, all tied around solar energy.

“I just learned the other day that the early de facto motto of the United States was E pluribus unum, ‘From many, one.’ With the amount of work that needs to be done we have to work together.”

Spencer and Deyo are not competing for the same cause with their different organizations, backgrounds and interests. Rather, they’re seeing the commonalities and exploiting their shared energy to innovate. In fact, it was innovation that got them together in the first place. The Office of Innovation and Strategic Initiatives at City Hall is only slightly older than ROCSPOT, and Project Manager Henry Fitts saw an opportunity when both Spencer and Deyo approached him with different but overlapping proposals.

“The key is to bring everybody along and leverage some of these trends like solar, like the fact that people want to be living in cities—young folks and empty-nesters,” Fitts says. “How do we best leverage that demand in those types of things to benefit those in need who have been in poverty and have been a victim of the socioeconomic system that, unfortunately, is a factor in the United States?”

While Fitts admits internal inefficiencies can stall progress within city governments, he is confident the cross-departmental reach of his office can facilitate this kind of change.

“The city of Rochester is one of our strongest allies,” Deyo says. “I am genuinely pleased with the city’s support for our projects. ... We have been provided with access to resources like zoning support and letters of support from Mayor Lovely Warren.”

The common thread between Spencer, Deyo and Fitts is not solar energy love; it’s a desire to alleviate poverty in Rochester. And while there are many ways to tackle a problem so riddled with pitfalls, solar energy is rising to the top.

PAST AND FUTURE

It used to be that solar energy was the right thing to do because it was clean. Solar advocates were, in passion and in practice, environmental activists who preached to anyone who would listen about doing the right thing. Save the planet for generations to come. Surprisingly to some and completely obvious to others, this is a tough sell when the cost is higher than the alternative: fossil fuels.

But Spencer talks about it differently. She’s an environmentalist by passion, a scientist by trade, and recently became something she didn’t expect—a pragmatist.

“Our primary motivation as a non-profit really is to reduce poverty and create jobs,” Spencer says. “The climate change stuff, that’s where I come from and I care very much about it, but it’s almost an ancillary benefit. You don’t need to use the environmental necessity to sell these panels anymore because they are economically viable. This is the thing that we do. We go out into the community and we educate and we make people aware. Then we help them get solar. That’s really the whole purpose.”

Within the past two years, improvements to solar technology have driven the cost down while increasing durability and efficiency. The spectrum of light that the sun delivers is much broader than can be seen with the human eye. Scientists have increased the number of photons that a solar cell absorbs to include ultraviolet and infrared light, making them vastly more efficient. Think of it this way: If a person needed to collect rain for drinking water and placed a cup out in a storm, at most, they would have a glass of water. Place a bucket out in the same storm, and you’ve got more than you can drink at one time. You can save some. Give some to a neighbor. Use it to make soup or to clean something. It’s yours.

“So what that means is,” Spencer says, “on a cloudy day, your solar cells will be working. On a snowy day, your solar cells will be working. They don’t require direct sunlight to work. And that’s a huge thing that people just don’t know, and that’s one of my biggest jobs to make people aware of this.”

GRIDLOCKED

The greatest barrier to change, as is often the case, is the status quo. Fossil fuels have a stranglehold on the energy market, and centralized grid distribution is the deteriorating infrastructure that most of Rochester (and the United States in general) is plugged into. According to Spencer, “the grid” in New York is 54 percent efficient. “That’s not a good number,” she says pointedly.

“The cost of transmission through the grid is only going to go up,” she says. “The cost of fees of working with utilities is only going to go up. This is how they make money, and as the actual infrastructure of the grid deteriorates, they’re going to have to make more money just to keep it somewhat working.”

The result of rising energy costs to an economically downtrodden population is as obvious as it is unbelievable. Spencer talks about a concept called energy poverty, where a person’s annual energy costs make up 20 percent of their income. Her research shows this very issue does occur in areas like Rochester’s 19th Ward. To give a global perspective, this type of poverty is found in sub-Saharan Africa where they’re paying 20 percent of their income toward kerosene for their lanterns.

“If we stop and restate that for a minute very clearly: Families in Rochester that are making less than $15,000 a year are at the same level of energy poverty as a rural villager in Kenya.” Spencer stops and stares hard. “We are promoting third-world energy policy right here. And it is, to me, unacceptable when there is technology to help people get out of this energy poverty.”

This is where her newfound pragmatism shines. Spencer shelves her good-natured reasons for protecting the environment and makes a sales pitch to people who need ways to save money. She stresses that this cannot be something just for homes in Pittsford; it needs to be available to the people who need it most, and the benefits will follow.

“If you can put solar in in a significant scale in a city, it will have a major impact on job creation—and I’ve got numbers,” she says. “It will also, at an individual level, put money back into the consumer’s pocket. And there’ve been studies done that show below a certain dollar level a month, that money is going to get spent again. So, this is directly going to stimulate Rochester’s economy.” From assembly line manufacturing jobs to highly skilled research and development, the solar and renewable energy industry can be the reincarnation of the days of Kodak in Spencer’s eyes—a sort of hyperlocal New Deal. This is where Fitts re-enters the fold, able to help reimagine Rochester’s employment grid by researching a model of cooperative employment that has had success in Cleveland and other cities. The idea is to analyze where money is leaving when purchasing goods and services from outside the metropolitan area, and develop partnerships to change that. Whether it’s produce or laundry service, when money leaves the city, it has a negative impact on its inhabitants.

“The idea is to come to an agreement to send those contracts to new businesses within the city and set them up as cooperative business structures, which are owned by the employees that are getting a decent-paying job but they also have a stake in the company,”

Fitts says. “We’re trying to replicate that here. We’ve actually hired the consultant who did the work in Cleveland. They’re employing folks from poorer neighborhoods and teaching them how to install solar in the summertime. Then, in the winter [when installation slows], they’re trained to monitor where people could increase heating efficiencies through getting drafts and leaks and stuff.”

EMPOWERING NEIGHBORHOODS

The first step toward a solar-powered Rochester is education. That will largely be undertaken by people like Spencer, who has turned down nine national and international solar energy positions in favor of staying and making a difference here.

Dr. Susan Spencer
Dr. Susan Spencer, solar power advocate

Installation companies have, thus far, been their own advocates, spending much of their time trying to convince people of the benefits of solar. The problem is that when the person selling you something is the one telling you how great it is, you may be less inclined to believe them. Spencer plans to spearhead community education programs so that people are more confident when asking about solar, and installers can focus on what their job is— installation.

Ideally, Rochester would end up with a distributed power system with multiple microgrids. Instead of power coming from one place over vast distances with great inefficiency, clusters of homes could produce the energy that they need together.

“Community building around energy sharing is a really interesting concept,” Fitts says. “You have eight houses that all have solar cells and have a shared central battery unit, and then they come together around their shared energy use. Maybe they have excess energy they can sell off at the end of the month; they have a fund of money then that they can do some things with. Maybe they have a shared garden or greenhouse. I think those kinds of things can be incredibly beneficial, too.”

And while the energy creation is the crux of this setup, again, the goal is community. Citizens would be stakeholders in energy production and distribution, with the potential to bring neighborhoods together in new ways. The hope is a philosophical shift that mirrors the efforts of an organization like In the City/ Off the Grid. Small, local and affordable becomes the rule rather than the exception.

PROOF IT WORKS

Other energy creators like geothermal, hydrothermal and wind will be part of the equation, too, but the ability to modularize solar is what makes it ideal for urban areas.

“I cannot stick a windmill on South Avenue,” Spencer says. “I love wind power. I’m a huge fan.”

But solar is a scalable technology. Once an amount of power is determined, the proportionate number of solar panels is installed. Again, the goal is efficiency.

“So, we could go over to your house, and you might need four to six kilowatts to power your home. We put together a certain number of panels to create your system,” Spencer says. “Then, I go over to Bausch & Lomb and they say, ‘Well, we need, like, four megawatts, and we’ve got some land. We want to power a third of our manufacturing.’ And I say, ‘OK, we can do that.’”

And they did.

On November 7, 2014, Bausch & Lomb began generating solar power with a 3,667-panel array spanning 4 acres of land with the goal of producing a third of the company’s energy needs. The company’s carbon footprint will be reduced by 800 tons of carbon dioxide per year and save at least $115,000 annually. The move was hailed by local and state government officials, and so far has exceeded expectations in terms of energy production.

“We have had multiple visits by schools and other industries to learn about the system and its capabilities, so we do see it as a roadmap for Rochester and even the state, as Gov. Cuomo looks to microgrid capacity,” says Amy Butler, vice president of global environment, health, safety and sustainability at Bausch & Lomb. “Even with our gloomy winter, we have still been very successful in meeting our energy goals. ... Bausch & Lomb has and will continue to look for opportunities to utilize solar and other renewable energies as part of our permanent strategy because it make good business sense and good environmental sense.”

The notion of a solar-powered Rochester by 2025 is ambitious, to say the least, and is barely getting started. Excited by the idea, Fitts is calculated in his optimism, noting that ideas without adequate research often fizzle. He won’t speculate on how possible it all is, because that’s not his job. His job is to manage expectations with analytics and informed implementation.

“If the trends continue,” Fitts says, “I think anyone who’s not installing solar is a fool, basically. But we’ll see where we get to.” He says that while the city likely won’t go so far as to mandate solar implementation for citizens or businesses, it is looking for ways to speed up the process. The city already offers grants for roof replacement, and Fitts suggested the possibility of including solar installation in programs like that.

Indeed, anyone can make a difference. Yes, there are leaders like Spencer, pioneers like Deyo, and facilitators like Fitts, but not one of them is enough on their own.

Says Spencer, “I think that there are enough amazing ideas and amazing people that if there is a groundswell of support, and if the city gets behind it, and the state, and the county gets behind the true revitalization of our downtown—not with Costco, not with Whole Foods—but with neighborhood- by-neighborhood revitalization that benefits directly the people that live in the neighborhoods, what I said about 2025 will be a reality.”