From a rooftop in Gowanus, you can see all around the neighborhood.
To the north, the glass towers of Wall Street serve as a backdrop, in front of which, by the shoreline, stand newly erected condominium buildings in various states of construction. Closer, you see the flat roofs of factories, the brick of rowhomes, satellite dishes, graffiti, water towers. To the east, there’s a building with slanted solar panels on top. Actually, there’s another nearby to the north. The new Whole Foods has solar panels and also a greenhouse on top of it. Also, the city block-long Dykes Lumber Company building has a roof made of solar panels.
The rooftop belongs to T.R. Ludwig’s company, Brooklyn SolarWorks. The company sells two things: Installation of solar roof panels, and its own invention, the flat roof solar canopy, which is basically solar panels on stilts so you can still use your roof and now also have a nice shade for it.
Ludwig started Brooklyn SolarWorks along with cofounders Gaelen McKee and Mark Cunningham in late 2015. So far, he says, business is good.
“People are waking up to the fact they can power their homes with their sun,” Ludwig said, seated at a table in the Brooklyn SolarWorks office. A small is dog napping on the floor next to us. “The equipment is becoming more affordable. The financing is becoming more affordable.”
A big reason the panels are affordable is because the government wants people to buy and use them. There’s a federal income tax credit for 30 percent of the cost of the solar panels (which cost about $35,000 with installation), a New York state rebate of $0.50 per kilowatt hour (kWh), a New York state tax credit of up to $5,000 and a New York City property tax abatement of 20 percent of the cost.
All that adds up, on average, to covering about 70 percent of the solar panels and installation for homeowners, Ludwig said. Add on top of that the fact that a solar canopy can supply more than 80 percent of a home’s electricity needs for a year and the panels can pay for themselves in about 3 to 5 years.
The country's agenda of mitigating climate change by subsidizing renewable energy has shown results. The solar panels on the roofs of Gowanus are proof.
If it sounds like a no-brainer, that’s about all it shares with the vision of the man running the country, Ludwig would say. We were talking the day after President Donald Trump announced the United States had pulled out of the Paris Agreement.
“The shit that’s going on with Trump is just outrageous,” Ludwig said, although he added that he didn’t see it slowing down the adoption of solar in the long run. “He just doesn’t seem to embrace the premise of climate change generally, which is incredible that that’s how he’s viewing the world, especially given there’s such consensus on it.”
Ludwig remained composed, as if we were talking about welding canopy units and not an existential threat to our species.
“He’s in a very small minority of people who don’t see climate change and clean technology as an opportunity. He wants to fight it really all the way, whereas if you embrace it and focus on it, the U.S. could be a cleantech leader. And we have been a leader on it for a long time.”
It’s been widely reported that clean technology is already creating more jobs than coal is, although the information is not always consistent. According to NPR, the solar industry employs more than four times the people the coal industry does. According to Forbes, solar employs more people than oil, coal, and natural gas combined. Politifact investigated a claim by an Illinois congressman who said solar employs three times as many people as coal does and found it to be “mostly true,” although it said Hillary Clinton’s claim that coal employs more people than oil to be “False” (sorry, Forbes).
Exact numbers are hard to come by because they come from different databases. A January report from the Department of Energy said about 260,000 people spend at least half the time at their job dealing with solar energy, most frequently in installation, though there’s still no federal classification code for most solar jobs.
Just over 86,000 people are employed in coal electric generation, according to the energy department, so let’s just go with that.
He's in a very small minority of people who don’t see climate change and clean technology as an opportunity.
SolarWorks has been able to hire, and is now up to 12 people. Growth has come from revenue; there is no venture money behind the company. It contracted a Brooklyn architecture firm, SITU Studio, to help design the canopies, which are fabricated elsewhere on the East Coast.
The growth in renewables has shown dividends. Greenhouse gas emissions are down in the United States. Since 2005, carbon dioxide emissions have fallen about 16 percent. Most of that is due to the enormous rise in the use natural gas over oil, but increases in solar and wind energy figure as well.
All of which is to say, the country’s agenda of mitigating climate change by subsidizing renewable energy has shown results. The solar panels on the roofs of Gowanus are proof of it, and the existence of Brooklyn SolarWorks at all is proof of it.
Ludwig doesn’t think Trump will or can reverse all that. Even if the federal subsidy vanishes, there are still state and local subsidies which add up to a good chunk of change. The payback period on installation would no longer be just a few years, but it would still be an enticing investment for many.
And Ludwig doesn’t think public opinion will change, in fact, he thought it could solidify in favor of renewables as a result of Trump’s actions.
“There’s something about solar that’s kind of magical in a way,” he said as we were winding down. “The sun comes up and hits this piece of technology and it creates electricity.”