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March 2006
A 92nd Street Y for the Environment
The Satya Interview with Jamie Paquette and Chris Neidl


The outdoor fest City Sol. Photo courtesy of Solar One

At the north end of Stuyvesant Cove Park along the East River, sits Solar One, the city’s first solar-powered green energy, arts and education center. The building, topped with solar panels and packed with green features, serves as a space for eco-minded workshops, lectures, concerts, an ongoing author’s series and parties. The outdoor space—including a stage recycled from fashion week—is home to their solar-powered dance and music festivals. In a few years, Solar 2, a larger, greener building will be constructed on site and serve as “a 92nd Street Y for the environment.”

From hosting a weekly green renter series, to putting on solar powered festivals, Solar One finds creative ways to encourage environmentally responsible city dwelling. In a collaborative email interview Brooklynites Jamie Paquette and Chris Neidl, the IT/Development Associate and Education and Outreach Coordinator for Solar One, told Sangamithra Iyer about greening the big apple.

Why was Solar One created?
One important reason why we exist is that there is significant interest in renewable energy and sustainability all over the city, but that interest tends to come with a lot of misinformation and confusion. There also tends to be an engrained stereotype of environmentalists as ultra-liberal tree-huggers who would just as soon live off the grid in the mountains eating leaves and berries—to live sustainably you have to give up the amenities of modern life. So we’re trying to cut through all that by reaching people in new and interesting ways to show that environmentalism and sustainability in urban areas are not oxymorons and that environmentalists include people from all across the political and social spectrums.

What were some of the challenges in creating a solar run space in New York?
The solar panels on the roof produce up to about three kilowatts of electricity under the best conditions, but we’ll be the first to admit that solar is not a perfect solution. We have a bank of about 24 batteries that capture and hold any excess charge that we’re generating so we can use it at night or on cloudy days. During the long days of spring, summer and fall, this system allows us to get the vast majority of our power from solar. During the winter it’s tougher, especially because we have some tall buildings to our west that block most of our afternoon sun, so we end up using more ConEd-generated electricity. It would be nice if our solar panels were connected to the electric grid and we had a net-metering agreement so we could sell excess power when we have it, but they’re only required to provide that for residential solar applications.

Can you describe your space and what other green components you incorporate?
Solar One packs a lot of green features which include a recycled aluminum exterior, structurally insulated panels (SIPs) that reduce heating and cooling needs, low-flush toilet and waterless urinal, compact fluorescent lighting, low-VOC paints, and linoleum flooring. And the building itself is constructed in such a way that it can be easily deconstructed with minimal waste, moved and reused in another location once we’ve built our new building (Solar 2) in a few years time.

Tell us about Solar 2.
Solar 2 is the future. In a nutshell, Solar 2 will meet the highest standards of building performance (gunning for a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design—LEED—Platinum rating) while minimizing its overall environmental impact, making it a model for future development.

It will be an 8,000 square foot building with a goal of being a net-zero energy user—over the course of a year, it will produce as much energy as it uses. It will do this mostly through a large photovoltaic panel array on the roof, and through the optimization of its building systems. Solar 2 will also feature on site rainwater collection and wastewater treatment, a small green roof, several classrooms, a demonstration “eco apartment,” exhibit space, and an outdoor green theater. We plan on using it as a learning tool, a meeting place and a performance space—sort of like a 92nd Street Y for the environment.

What is the rationale behind your green renter lecture series?
Renters happen to make up the majority of the population in NYC. Strategies for making an impact have to acknowledge that most of us are ‘users’: we use other peoples’ spaces to live in, and other peoples’ taxis, subways and sidewalks to get around. For renters to be effective, we need to live green in our own lives to create market demand and leverage our collective purchasing power, but we also need to be informed and active as a group. Our lecture series invites experts to speak about a broad range of subjects that are pertinent to big-city non-owners. This includes things people can do on a day-to-day basis to green their own lives (i.e. composting or buying green electricity), but it also includes information on important initiatives that we might want to rally behind as a group (i.e. congestion pricing or e-waste recycling).

What are some exciting things coming up this year at Solar One that readers should be on the lookout for?
The green renter series is ongoing. June will mark the return of CitySol, an all-day green product market and music event that we unveiled this past October to great success. We had people signing up for green power with ConEd Solutions and getting free beer from Brooklyn Brewery whose brewing operations are 100 percent wind-powered. We had over 25 companies and organizations selling everything from light bulbs to solar-powered backpacks to clothing, and we had free music all day long. We plan to hold at least three of these events throughout this summer and fall. Summer will also mark the return of our Solar-Powered Arts Festival that will include outdoor dance and film on weekends throughout July and August.

What are the top three things New Yorkers can do to be more environmentally responsible city dwellers?
There are so many things to choose from, but here are three things that are relatively simple:

Be civically active. Our political process does not respond to silence, but rather to informed citizens who organize and fight to get certain issues on the agenda. Find out about pending pieces of green legislation, and about what’s being done in other cities and then get active with other individuals and groups who are willing to fight for it. Too often environmentalism is boiled down into individual lifestyle choices, and while it is certainly important to walk the talk and tread as lightly on the earth as you can, our most pressing environmental problems require systematic political resolve and intervention.

Conserve energy and purchase wisely. New York City’s electricity demand is growing every year, and that could mean more power plants (most likely in low income neighborhoods) and more pollution, or it could mean smarter energy use and demand-side management. For this latter, greener route, we all have to kick in and make the right choices in our own homes and demand smart initiatives. Replace a few lights in your home with compact fluorescent bulbs. They cost more upfront, but over their life they can easily save you $40 or $50 because they last about 10 times as long as an incandescent and use about 30 percent of the energy. Your electric bill will be cheaper and you’ll help reduce polluting emissions from power plants. Ditto for buying Energy Star appliances. Also, everyone should sign up for Green Power with ConEd Solutions. You pay a small premium (but you won’t notice it if you change those light bulbs!), but then all of your energy comes from 100 percent renewable resources—25 percent wind power and 75 percent run-of-the-river hydropower. It still comes through the same wires to your house, but they track how many people sign up and the more people that do, the more it will create a push for the development of more clean energy sources.

Buy locally produced food. This can be easily accomplished through a CSA (community supported agriculture), at a farmer’s market, through Fresh Direct (click on the “local” link at the top) or even at your local grocery, though that can be a bit more difficult. Food that comes from farther away contributes lots more pollution in transit. Supporting small, local farmers also supports a healthy environment because they are less likely to use harmful growing and harvesting techniques.

Why do you heart NY?
Jamie Paquette: People here want to be first, they want to be the best, they want to be the tail that wags the dog. And as much as that attitude can engender selfishness, it also engenders a lot of altruism and pragmatism. There are so many people here doing exciting and interesting things that it’s easy to be optimistic about the future. I love that the city is among the most sustainable places anywhere by simple virtue of its density and the prevalence of mass transit. While the rest of the country sprawls in all directions, NYC undergoes constant rebirth and renewal.

Beyond that, I love the subway. I love the history, I love the neighborhoods. I love the feeling I get when I find myself somewhere I’ve never been before—like I might just stumble across something great. I love the pickles, the bagels, the pizza. I love Prospect Park. I love the [Coney Island] Cyclone. I love that there’s always something to do when someone comes to visit. I love the diversity. I love that there’s no Wal-Mart.

Chris Neidl: It’s impossible to live in New York and remain too tied to one way of looking at things. You have to keep an open door on your beliefs, or you’ll go crazy. There are just too many contradictions living cheek to jowl for one to sincerely look at the world through a narrow set of fundamentals. I think the type of extreme, unpretentious cosmopolitanism that is at the basis of NY living has also been the key to its history as an innovative center for culture, business, governance and technology. The culture of environmentalism is sometimes associated with purism, elitism and homogeneity, and as a result it has not, by in large, capably compelled most people to take interest in its proposals. Here’s where New York could play a powerful role.

The surge of homegrown green interest in NYC is so heartening because it means that finally cosmopolitanism is coming to bear on the green identity. New York City may not be the first to become zero-waste or to put green roofs all over the place, but it just might, through its sheer cultural productivity, be the place that cracks open and widens the identity of environmentalism to the point where it transcends its own ‘ism’ and the word no longer serves a purpose.

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