Building NYC’s Solar Infrastructure with CUNY’s Tria Case

October 4, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so excited to have on the line with us Tria Case. She’s the University Director of Sustainability at CUNY. Welcome to Green is Good, Tria. TRIA CASE: Thank you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Tria, before we get into talking about all the great things that are going on in the sustainability at the CUNY and the city of New York and this region, can you share with our listeners a little bit, how did you become the Director of Sustainability there? This is pretty much a brand new industry as a whole and the whole sustainability revolution is pretty new for America. Share a little bit your story and your journey leading up to this point. TRIA CASE: Well, I started out out of law school at Empire State Development Corporation actually, which is New York State’s economic development entity and my graduation from law school coincide with the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment being implemented in the state and so every state had to put in place an environmental ombudsmen and I became New York state’s environmental ombudsmen and in that role, I was responsible for helping small businesses under 100 employees to understand how to comply with this new set of regulations that were being imposed upon them. For the first time, drycleaners and automobile repair shops and small businesses around the state of New York had to be permitted for their air emissions and so I was able to spend a lot of time looking at what folks were doing in their companies, why they were required to comply with regulations, and after about 10 years at Empire State Development, I really started to recognize that the important part of my work, the part that really excited me, was trying to help folks understand how they could maybe do what they wanted to do differently so that they could do it in a less polluting way, in a more sustainable way and it very quickly turned into what’s known as pollution prevention and then eventually, the whole sustainability movement developed and moving from Empire State Development, I went out on my own for a couple of years and helped to move some clean technology into the marketplace and managed to have two children in the meantime and eventually, while I was working on some solar projects trying to help municipalities figure out how to adopt solar without requiring taxpayers to carry that load, I came across Bronx Community College and CUNY and at the time, Bronx Community College was starting up something called the Center for Sustainable Energy that had been supported by Congressman Serrano and they were very interested in looking at how to move clean energy into New York City and so we were able to work together and eventually, they asked would I come and run the center, so little by little I became more and more involved in CUNY and in the solar movement in New York City. CUNY is a huge organization so CUNY, half-a-million folks are at CUNY. There’s 24 colleges in the system. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m so glad you’re explaining this because honestly, I’m a native New Yorker. I didn’t even know that, so I’m so glad you’re sharing that. TRIA CASE: Yeah. It’s a small city in and of itself, and very, very quickly as I looked at CUNY, I recognized that as a singular organization, CUNY really has the ability to not only sort of change how it and its students and faculty operate but to lead the city towards looking at how to implement a more sustainable future and eventually, recognizing that at the time that I was helping the center, CUNY did not have a centralized sustainability effort. I began to talk to the Deputy Chief Operating Officer of the university and said, ‘I think that it would make a lot of sense to take these efforts that we’re looking at in the city and apply them across the university. It could make a huge difference,’ and so today, I’m not he University Director of Sustainability and we have a movement across the university called CUNY Conserves, which is looking at reducing our energy load, our energy requirements, and has really made significant strides across the university and at the same time, we are putting in place program that we think are helping to lead New York City and ultimately New York State and the country towards being able to implement clean energy solutions and solar has really been our platform for doing that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great, and before we talk about solar, which I definitely want to get into right away, I want to also lead our listeners to your wonderful website, SustainableCUNY.org. I’m on the site now. There’ slots of entry points to talk about in terms of solar and all the different things you’re involved with in terms of sustainability, sustainable energy, and sustainable works with regards to CUNY. Talk a little bit about solar. When I think about solar, Tria, I think about California. I think about Florida. New York; solar; do they go together? TRIA CASE: Absolutely. Listen. We have 1 million buildings. We have 1 million rooftops. We have plenty of space for solar. We don’t think about it. We certainly have plenty of sun and you know, New York City has some interesting issues. We have grid constraint issues. We know on those really hot days, when everybody turns their lights on their air conditioners on and everything is operating at full capacity, ConEd has a hard time meeting that demand and so there are actually parts of the city that really struggle to meet our demands and solar is a great technology for helping New York City meet what we call that peak load demand, those hot times when the grid is really constrained. That’s when the sun is out and that’s when solar is producing. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Can you talk a little bit about the lidar-based solar map that you launched and what does that mean and what do you want it to accomplish? TRIA CASE: Well, we recognize just as the question you just asked, New York City, solar, we thought people don’t know because you can’t see these installations up on the roof. You don’t know what’s possible so we set out to do a few things. First of all, back in 2006, we said how much solar is there in New York City? And at the time, we recognized there was only a megawatt of solar across the whole city and that just didn’t make a lot of sense to us and when we took a look at why that was the case and what needed to happen in order to realize what I would call our potential and we mapped out the barriers to solar in the city and we set out to address each of the barriers and to try to reduce the bureaucracy, to streamline, the permitting, to be able to allow people to understand what the process is for adopting solar in the city and at the same time, we wanted to let people know there is some solar out there and guess what, there’s the possibility of solar on your very roof and in order to do that with so many buildings, we needed to literally fly planes over New York City and shoot these sort of like radar down into the city and it bounces back and it creates a 3D map of the city. There’s 15 billion points of data that in essence give us kind of a shrink wrap view of New York City and having that allowed us to then layer on what’s called insolation data from the city, which is how much sun hits each building, each point across the entire city so we could see what the shading, for example, might do from one building to the next as it relates to solar production on a building so now, if you go into the solar map and type in your address, it’ll fly you to that roof and it’ll tell you exactly how much solar you could put on that roof, taking into consideration the shading because we were able to put that lidar data into the mix. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so cool. Talk a little bit about the last six years. How much has solar power grown and what does that mean to New York City and what’s the potential here? TRIA CASE: I mentioned that in 2006 we had a megawatt. By the end of 2012, we had 14 megawatts. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Fourteen times. Whew! TRIA CASE: Pretty impressive and across New York so in the ConEd territory, which includes Westchester, there’s about 20 megawatts of solar, but the thing that’s really exciting is that in the queue right now, 350 applications, so the growth has been exponential every year since we started this effort and to me, you asked what did we hope to gain by putting this solar map together. This is exactly it. I think once people understood what was possible and what was out there and that it could be done, they started to try to — JOHN SHEGERIAN: You were the catalyst for change. CUNY was the catalyst for change. TRIA CASE: We would like to think so, and it’s great. It’s important as well from a perspective of our economy and the local companies. There are boots on a roof. Somebody in New York City has to do this work. We started this with five or six solar installation companies across the city. CUNY put in place a training program. That’s one of the things that we started up at the Center for Sustainability Energy. Now there’s over 90 companies doing business in this industry in New York City. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Tria, we’re down to about two-and-a-half minutes, unfortunately, but we’re going to have you back because we need to talk more about this and other issues that you’re working on. This is just amazing. Two last questions though: We all lived through the horrible Hurricane Sandy. Did that affect any of the solar installations that happened that horrible time that we all had to live through and was solar able to supply any power when the grid went down and then what’s next? What’s your vision for next? Because obviously, you’ve done amazing work timesing this by 14. If you include Westchester, much more but there’s a lot more out there so share a little bit about Hurricane Sandy and the next. TRIA CASE: Right now, when the grid goes down, solar needs to also turn off so that it doesn’t put solar back on to the grid when folks are working on the grid. We don’t want them to have electricity running through it so you have to keep that solar within the building that it sits and so the answer is there was no damage to the solar installation. Nothing flew off a roof. Everything was fine. All those installations were there and with the exception of basements that may have flooded and impacted much more than an inverter or something that may have been in that basement. Solar did great. One of the things that we’re really focused on now is what we’re calling Smart Distributed Generation , Smart DG, and we’ve created a little hub and we brought FIMA and all the key agencies that are working on what we call resiliency because we recognize that solar could be a great contributor to providing distributed power when the grid goes down. There are now inverters, the piece of equipment that takes that power out of the solar panels and allows you to use it in your building or put it out on to the grid. There are no inverters that allow you to shut yourself off from the grid and keep that power within your building so really, if you ask what’s the next thing, the next thing is to try to create what we call resilient solar installations to work with these resilient solar companies and try to get, as we grow this industry, and it is growing exponentially, to use these new smart technologies so that we have resilient solar power going forward. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Tria, we’re going to have you back on the show. There’s so much I want to talk about. For our listeners out there, SustainableCUNY.org. Tria Case, you’re an inspiring sustainability leader and truly living proof that green is good. TRIA CASE: Thank you.