Solar panels on a commercial building located at 799 9th St. NW. Credit: Amanda Michelle Gomez

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The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says humanity has just over a decade to get climate change under control. If we don’t get our collective acts together, catastrophe could be imminent.  

To meet the problem, D.C. has set some of the nation’s most ambitious climate goals. In the Clean Energy DC plan, finalized in August 2018, the District commits that 100 percent of electricity sold in the city will come from renewable sources by 2032. The 2032 targets include providing 100 percent clean electricity, with about 5 percent coming from solar; and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent, relative to 2006 levels. The clean energy omnibus bill, signed into law in January 2019, codifies some of the climate action plan, including D.C.’s commitment that 5 percent of clean electricity will come from solar by 2032 and 10 percent of its clean energy will come from solar by 2042. The bill also puts an extra emphasis on commercial and multifamily buildings; buildings writ large account for 75 percent of the District’s total emissions.  

Right now, between 1 and 2 percent of D.C.’s electricity is supplied by solar. As of December 2019, D.C. has over 5,000 solar installations, with a total generating capacity of about 83 megawatts, according to data provided by the Department of Energy & Environment. (The overwhelming majority of panels in the city are photovoltaic devices that convert sunlight into electricity.) While the city is only 10 percent of its way to meeting its 2042 solar goal, experts say the statistics are actually quite impressive. 

“I remember testifying at the Public Service Commission a couple of years ago and they asked me how much of our energy comes from solar. I was like ‘I don’t know, but I know it’s way less than 1 percent,’” says Anya Schoolman, the executive director of Solar United Neighbors. “We’re really making steady progress. We’ve created dozens of new companies and hundreds of jobs, maybe more than a thousand jobs.” 

“We helped 75 low-income homeowners go solar last year,” Schoolman says of her own nonprofit. “Every single day, somebody in a condo in D.C. calls me up and says, ‘Our condo wants to go solar. What should we do?’”

They’re not always obvious, but solar installations are increasing across the District thanks to rebates and other fiscal incentives that make solar more attractive and affordable in the long run. You can find solar on individual homes and public spaces like 40 traditional schools, the Metropolitan Police Academy, and St. Elizabeths Hospital. DOEE is also beginning construction on its largest community solar system yet, totaling 2.65 megawatts, on a 15-acre brownfield near Oxon Run in Ward 8. 

“We’ve seen an acceleration and increase in the number of people pulling permits to install solar,” says DOEE Director Tommy Wells.

While he is proud of the strides D.C. has made so far on solar, Wells is quick to acknowledge the limitations. 

“We’re trying to deploy solar throughout the city in a built-out city and there’s not a lot of real estate available for solar,” says Wells. “10 percent of all our energy to come from solar power —it’s just not realistic. We may be able to get to 7 [percent]. We’re working with folks like DC Water, where we’re looking at things like can you float solar panels on the reservoirs … We’re being as creative as we can.”  

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Wells cites a study by the Urban Land Institute—an urban planning and real estate development think tank—that concludes “the requirements for 5 percent and 10 percent of overall building energy to be provided by in-D.C. solar are likely not to be achievable through purely geometric constraints, given the size of D.C.’s rooftops plus required setbacks and other beneficial uses of rooftop space.”  He believes D.C. can meet its renewable energy goal, along with its goal to cut dirty energy sources, by also generating energy outside of the city. “A third of [D.C. government] power comes from a wind farm in Pennsylvania,” he says.

Wells notes the limitations to how much solar D.C. can generate within its borders when asked if councilmembers should consider removing the red tape commonly associated with going solar. Specifically, should D.C. limit the Historic Preservation Review Board’s authority on approving and denying solar panel applications in historic districts, as Sierra Club D.C. suggests? Homeowners, for one, have been open about the arduous regulatory process. 

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Chehis not yet ready to limit historic preservationists’ authority. “I want to see how we go forward,” she says. “But if that became an impediment … yeah, we could address that.” Unlike Wells, Cheh is confident D.C. can meet its solar goals. She cites studies that the Council used when drafting the clean energy legislation, one by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and another by the Office of the People’s Counsel. NREL, a national laboratory within the U.S. Department of Energy, says D.C. can potentially generate 16 percent of its estimated energy consumption with rooftop solar.  

“In any event, technology in the solar industry is moving so rapidly towards putting solar on sides of buildings, putting solar on parking lots, putting solar on so many other places that I’m skeptical that we should rely solely on this report as a putting a cloud of the possibility of achieving our goals,” Cheh says. “Am I happy with just 1 percent? No, I want the 10 percent. But we are getting there,” she says, referencing where D.C. is currently at with solar versus where she wants the city to be by 2042.  

Billy Grayson, with Urban Land Institute, actually thinks D.C. can meet its solar targets if buildings reduce today’s overall energy demand by between 30 and 50 percent and maximize the capacity of solar on roofs by removing some setbacks. D.C.’s clean energy plan does require energy consumption to be cut in half by 2032, relative to 2012 levels, but Grayson says his study opted to use current day energy consumption as its baseline. 

“First, squeeze out as much efficiency as you can and then take on the solar panels to offset as much as you can on-site gas, or tap into the sewer gas or use the geothermal,” he says. “I think that there needs to be a rewrite of our building codes first to better accommodate onsite renewable energy.” 

He believes it’d be smarter for commercial buildings aiming to achieve net-zero carbon to first focus on energy efficiency by installing better insulating windows and walls or buying new heating, ventilating, and, air-conditioning systems. 

“The most cost effective way that we could do that as a city is to get rid of natural gas and electrify all of our buildings—although, that it’s going to be very hard for some buildings—and then buy renewable energy through the grid from a location where it’s more cost effective to produce it,” Grayson says.  

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As she overlooks the hundreds of roofs in Mount Pleasant from her own rowhouse’s roof, Schoolman notes all the potential for solar. 

“You’re just looking at one sector right in Mount Pleasant. We’ve only done 10 percent [of roofs] and there is a steady stream to go,” she says. “In the next 10 years, I’m not saying we’ll get 100 percent, but we can steadily make progress. There’s a lot of real estate left before we start reaching those constraints.” 

Schoolman, who’s spent more than a decade promoting solar, isn’t fixated on meeting the city’s targets right on the nose, so long as D.C. is trying to reach them. D.C. has set itself up for success by enacting legislation that invested in solar years before it put in place climate goals. The Solar For All program, for example, was signed into law in July 2016 and provides solar opportunities to residents of modest means so that the path to sustainability is equitable. As of Feb. 14, 10,000 households are enrolled in the program. Outside of installing panels on single-family homes for free, DOEE is also giving low-income residents credit on their Pepco bill each month, so residents whose homes aren’t a fit for panels can still benefit through government solar projects elsewhere in the city. So far, DOEE says more than 2,100 residents have subscribed to Solar For All’s community solar. (Unfortunately, Schoolman points out, the interconnection by Pepco for community solar is very slow. It can take months to get permission to connect and activate a solar PV system.) 

“You need a strong goal to motivate the market to set clear market signals,” says Schoolman. “Then you need to just work the market and grow the market and deal with the obstacles … A barrier for a rooftop homeowner is people don’t know that it’s a good deal. A barrier in the multifamily is the utility is too slow. And a barrier in the historic is that the implementation and application of historic rules has been unequal and slow.”    

Jeffrey Lesk can also see all the possibilities for solar from his own roof. He salivates over the roof of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in downtown D.C. It’s wide, flat, and free of shadows, a perfect fit for solar panels. 

Lesk is a block north of the library at 799 9th St. NW, standing on the roof of the10-story building where his law firm, Nixon Peabody, is based. It’s also the site of Lesk’s solar energy experiment. The goal of his nonprofit, New Partners Community Solar, is to rethink renewable energy. Don’t discount commercial high-rise buildings as impossible real estate for solar arrays.  

“But look at it a little bit differently,” suggests Lesk. 

It’s no easy ask. Most commercial owners have already passed on solar because their roofs would produce little power compared to the building’s total operational costs. It’s not worth it, fiscally, the thinking goes. Lesk’s solar panels would take care of no more than 2 percent of the electricity needed for the building where his firm is located. But that’s not the point. His nonprofit distributes the solar energy the building generates to low-income families, subsidizing their monthly utility bills by approximately $25 per month. It has enlisted five other commercial buildings to do the same thing.    

“Our nonprofit, in part, has been going building owner by building owner and trying to convince them that it’s in their best interest, maybe not so much economically, but for social impact, making a difference in the city, for community relations, for government relations, for shareholder relations,” says Lesk. “We’re working with one very large owner. It’s an international company that’s got a big footprint here in D.C.” 

Lesk’s law firm was the first project to join the city’s community solar program. He convinced his building’s owner, Brookfield Properties, to put solar panels on its roof when negotiating its lease as new tenants. It wasn’t easy. There are obstacles, from the costs associated with installing the arrays—a commercial building needs a crane—to logistics like respecting the integrity of the roof. 

The practical challenges with installing solar on commercial buildings, along with the lack of fiscal incentives, might partly explain the data on where solar installations are in the District. Ward 2 has the lowest share of any ward, with just under 4 percent of D.C.’s total solar installations. Ward 1 and Ward 7 have nearly 11 percent and nearly 13 percent, respectively. 

But it’s not impossible. The American Geophysical Union building at 2000 Florida Ave. NW in Ward 2 is another example of a commercial building that went solar. “You could renovate buildings on a tight urban footprint and still strive for net-zero energy goals,” says AGU’s Janice Lachance.

AGU is the first net-zero energy commercial renovation in D.C. Surprisingly, the process was relatively painless. Lachance isn’t calling on lawmakers to change any D.C. codes, for example. The renovation just required a lot of dedication and open communication with neighbors and government agencies. But it also wasn’t without compromise. AGU’s original design had its solar panels lined up one next to the other. But neighbors worried the design was going to block the sun and cast dark shadows on the street, so architects agreed to redesign. AGU did get D.C. to allow its solar array to extend four feet beyond its property line, and to permit the first-ever municipal sewer heat exchange in the city, which heats and cools the building using wastewater. 

“If D.C. maintains the kind of open mind that they did with us,” says Lachance, “everyone would walk out of these processes very satisfied.”