Tarrytown Music Hall is a Westchester landmark with character—and a pedigree. Built in 1885, everything from the venue’s spires to its stairwells have history. But atop the concert hall’s roof—three stories up and out of sight—is a feature decidedly modern: solar panels. Three arrays of 96 panels bedeck the venue’s roof, shimmering and drinking in sunlight. Despite the structure’s age, it’s powered by this markedly 21st-century energy system. It’s no exaggeration to say the music hall’s acts are brought to the audience courtesy of the sun.
“We power our shows entirely with solar—sound, lights, even the power that goes to the artists’ buses,” says Björn Olsson, executive director of the music hall. So when comedian Brian Regan delivers a punchline, or ’60s act The Turtles play a set, it’s by way of sunbeams.
Tarrytown Music Hall installed its solar panels in September 2015. The venue has long striven to uphold both history and green practices, Olsson says. “I think people are really ready for the greening of our energy supply,” he explains, adding, “What’s a better use for a roof?”
Solar energy is slowly but steadily gaining traction among Westchester business owners, with momentum building in recent months. From some of the county’s most recognizable destinations to smaller, unassuming shops, scores of forward-thinking merchants and property owners are embracing solar energy.
“It’s a very diverse range, from a public library to multifamily housing to retail and service companies,” says Nina Orville, project manager at Solarize Westchester, the public-private partnership that helps equip Westchester’s businesses, homes, and municipalities with solar power.
“The size of the systems being installed is also extremely varied,” she explains.
Why go solar? It makes a bold statement: “We’re green.” It also helps create a more sustainable county, by tapping into clean, renewable energy.
But there’s another motivation, one that may be a bit more alluring than simply making a statement. Solar energy makes sound financial sense. “The cost of solar has come down significantly,” Orville says. “It’s more affordable than [businesses] might have expected. There are more financing options available now then there have been in the past.”
For the profit-minded business owner, solar can be a boon. There are government grants, incentives, and tax credits, as well as affordable financing. And even for those merchants who shell out cash up front, the panels will pay for themselves in a few years’ time, via reduced energy costs.
Orville and her colleagues at Solarize Westchester have been a driving force behind Westchester’s solar push. The initiative—equipped with funding from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s $1 billion initiative to stimulate the state’s solar marketplace—helps to simplify the solar process and identify inexpensive options. The helping hand pays off: Solarize Westchester’s eight local campaigns have netted more than 400 solar-installation contracts (commercial and residential) since 2015, Orville says.
The solar players
Orville isn’t exaggerating when she emphasizes the diversity of local businesses going solar. There’s the supermarket in Larchmont, the pharmacy in Ossining, the college in Purchase.
That college is Manhattanville, the liberal-arts school that sits on 100 acres in central Westchester. Manhattanville’s dedication to solar is ambitious: In May, the institution announced a plan to draw 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. In the summer and fall of 2016, the school plans to install a dizzying array of solar infrastructure, some 3,600 panels, to turn commitment into reality. The school is motivated by a mix of environmental and economic prudence, according to the college’s recently retired president, Dr. Jon Strauss, and its vice president of operations, Greg Palmer.
“We’ve been working on this notion of being a zero-carbon emitter for some years,” Strauss says. Tapping into solar energy complements a number of other green initiatives on campus, like LED lighting and soon-to-be-installed charging stations for electric cars.
Then there’s the savings.
“Generally speaking, it’s less expensive for the long haul…than buying through the local utilities,” Palmer notes. While the price of local utilities may spike in coming years, the cost of solar is a known quantity, he explains.
“We estimate over the next 25 years, the savings could be in excess of $3 million for the campus,” Palmer says.
Another Westchester business in the vanguard of solar, Mount Kisco-based real estate firm Diamond Properties, is also driven by the combo of doing good and saving money.
Diamond Properties owns 44 properties, spanning about 3.7 million square feet, from office and industrial to retail and hospitality. Currently, seven of those properties are powered by solar, four of which are here in Westchester. All seven of the solar systems became operational in the past 18 months.
“[Solar is] a good business decision; the return on investment makes sense. It’s essentially locking in the cost of our power for the next 25 years or so,” says CEO Jim Diamond.
Solar has been a pleasant surprise, Diamond adds, because going green isn’t always frugal. “Some of our environmental efforts cost money, but they’re the right thing to do,” he explains. “It’s great when you can find something like solar, where the business case aligns perfectly with the environmental case.”
Diamond’s largest project is located at 333 North Bedford Road in Mount Kisco: A 600,000-square-foot building with 14 acres of roof space. “Right now, we’ve got two-thirds of that roof area covered with solar [panels],” Diamond says. Viewed from above, the sight is stunning: Countless panels are arranged in neat, geometric shapes and extend onward seemingly endlessly.
Diamond notes other properties in his portfolio will likely go solar soon, too. “We’re very close to beginning our eighth and ninth projects,” he says. “And we’re evaluating going forward with solar at three or four additional buildings.”
Solar energy isn’t just a win for the local businesses drawing power from panels; it’s also a win for the local businesses who install them. Take, for example, Sunrise Solar Solutions: The Briarcliff Manor-based company has been bustling lately, selling, designing, and installing solar systems across the Hudson Valley.
“It’s not just businesses; we’re doing schools and temples, too,” says Doug Hertz, principal at Sunrise Solar. Recently, Hertz and his team outfitted a country club in Sleepy Hollow, a gymnastics facility in Cortlandt Manor, and a veterinary office in Croton-on-Hudson.
Why the increase in business? Several factors are converging, Hertz explains. Solar technology is mature and tested; there are now highly visible solar exemplars in other businesses’ backyards; and Westchester sits in one of the nation’s leading solar states.
“New York is, at the moment, the most progressive state in the union when it comes to solar and renewables,” Hertz explains, referencing policies from the governor that encourage green business practices.
A bright future
Solar, of course, isn’t a perfect solution. For the business owner without rooftop real estate, drawing power from the sun is likely not an option. And then there’s the slew of imitators and dubious discounts. “You’ve likely been inundated with marketing from solar companies,” Hertz says, referencing the coupons that stuff mailboxes and clutter inboxes. “The question has always been: How do I find someone who is legitimate?
“Up until recently,” Hertz continues, “you couldn’t go to another business and ask, ‘Did you have a good experience with this solar company?’”
But that’s quickly changing. A sure sign of solar’s momentum locally is the Westchester Green Business Challenge, an eight-year-old, public-private partnership between the Business Council of Westchester and county government. The initiative educates local businesses about going green with awards, industry forums, newsletters, and more.
“Right now, it’s just crackling,” says Dani Glaser, who runs the Green Business Challenge. “Everyday we’re getting more and more interest from companies.”
In recent years, the program has evolved into a certification authority, dubbed Westchester Green Business-Certified. Local businesses’ sustainable practices are vetted, using a 90-item checklist; those that meet the requirements for certification are rewarded with bragging rights.
“[It’s] a very rigorous process to become certified,” Glaser says, adding that solar is an important component. “Everyone who goes through our program has to consider solar.”
Does Glaser sense a solar trend percolating across the county? “Undoubtedly,” she says. “There’s a domino effect in businesses embracing sustainability.”
Freelance writer Kevin Zawacki is a frequent 914INC. contributor.