Solar & Urban Environments


The world’s cities are responsible for 70% of the total global carbon dioxide emissions from energy consumption (Nat Geo). This high and growing energy demand has taken a toll on the environment and public health of urban areas. Now, many cities are trying to lessen their dependence on fossil fuels by setting aggressive renewable energy targets and enacting policies to incentivize the growth of solar. With these initiatives in place, solar has been blossoming in cities around the world. However, integrating solar energy in urban environments does come with a unique set of challenges that solar developers must navigate to make our cities greener for future generations.In this blog, we’ll explain the challenges typically encountered in these environments with case studies that highlight PowerFlex’s relevant experience in New York City (Cornell Tech), Washington D. C. (Arena Stage) and Boston (University of Massachusetts).

Cornell Tech

State-of-the-art university campus on Roosevelt Island, NYC

Cornell Tech’s solar system sits atop two of its main buildings at its cutting-edge campus on Roosevelt Island. As the largest solar system in Manhattan, it generates clean electricity in the heart of NYC and reduces the energy demand on nearby power plants. Cornell’s innovative net-zero energy campus also includes the world’s tallest certified passive house, a residence hall for its students and faculty.Designing and installing this solar project in the middle of New York City raised several specific challenges. First, the system had to withstand high wind speeds on exposed buildings along the East River. To overcome this environmental challenge, our engineering team designed and installed a customized racking system to anchor the panels on the roof canopy. Secondly, NYC required numerous permits and approvals from various parties, including The NYC Economic Development Corporation (EDC), NYC Dept. of Buildings, Con Edison and the city’s Electrical Advisory Board (EAB). Thirdly, the solar engineers had to work with the buildings’ architects to perfect the unique system design and align it with the overall aesthetic of the campus. Since the system construction was simultaneous to the building construction, the project managers had to coordinate with dozens of NYC union contractors to keep everything on schedule and organized. Lastly, the building did not have the capability to export energy, so the buildings’ network protectors had to be updated to allow for export on Con Edison’s secondary network.

Arena Stage

Art center landmark on Washington, D.C. waterfront

Arena Stage, a state-of-the-art theater in the center of the nation’s capital, partnered with PowerFlex to integrate a solar system at the Mead Center for American Theater.Arena Stage’s solar project presented challenges specifically not only to an urban environment but also to a historically significant region. The solar system designers worked closely with the D.C. Landmark Commission to ensure the project adhered to city regulations. In addition to the challenging location of the building, the unconventionally-shaped building itself was another hurdle for the engineers to overcome. Our experienced engineers performed a detailed survey and utilized extensive roof chalking for planning purposes to ensure precise placement for the installation on site. As with many urban environments, there were space constraints on the roof, and the engineers and project managers navigated complex interconnection and built-in reverse power relays and monitoring systems to work around the local power issues.

University of Massachusetts

Public research university campus in Boston, MA

The UMass Boston solar system is comprised of a solar canopy atop a parking garage, a traditional roof-mounted solar array, car charging stations, and a battery storage system, all integrated on the campus’ grid. The landmark project is highly visible to visitors and students, demonstrating the school’s commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility, and required a team of professionals to seamlessly develop this complex project successfully.The already challenging permitting process became more complicated with the inclusion of a battery storage system, which is new to many permitting officials. UMass is a self-permitting Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), so the engineers worked with the university through regular meetings to understand the technology and keep the project on schedule. Similar to Cornell Tech, the buildings are very exposed and situated near a waterfront, so the engineers designed the system to withstand high wind loads. The buildings were also more than 100 feet tall and required crane planning and permitting with the airport to minimize any disruption. Since the build took place during the school year and concurrent with other construction projects, the project management team had to coordinate special schedules to work during the weekends and off-hours to meet deadlines.Developing a solar project in an urban environment may seem daunting at first, but an experienced and knowledgeable solar partner can help make the transition easy and seamless. PowerFlex is a leading national solar provider for businesses and schools, and our financing, engineering and project development teams work diligently to provide safe, customized and profitable solar solutions to our clients. We are exceptionally prepared to work in challenging areas, such as urban environments, and take pride in delivering best-in-class solar systems. To learn more about how you can deploy solar for your business or school, please contact us today.