When Bruno Estrada approaches Brooklynites about getting affordable or even free access to solar energy in their homes, he’s not surprised when they’re suspicious.

Bruno Estrada. Photo: Barrio Solar / Supplied

“I completely understand it. I’m a Brooklyn kid, a Queens kid, myself. When somebody comes up to me with something free, I expect they want something in return, too.”

But, as Estrada explains to BK Reader, he’s not selling anything.

Instead, he’s working on behalf of a trio of non-profits that have come together to make solar power accessible for low-income communities and communities of color in Brooklyn with the campaign ‘Barrio Solar.’

Barrio Solar was launched in October 2021 as a campaign to provide education and financial assistance to New York City homeowners interested in switching to solar energy.

The initial idea for Barrio Solar came from social justice non-profit Fifth Avenue Committee, which had success with downpayment assistance programs for homeownership, and saw that there was nothing like it helping low-income households access solar assistance.

Solar canopies. Photo: Barrio Solar / Supplied

It came up with a pilot plan and partnered with clean energy non-profit Solar One to score a grant from the national community development non-profit Enterprise Development for the project.

Educating Homeowners

As the climate crisis worsens and energy bills skyrocket, Estrada’s role is, essentially, to advocate for anyone who might be interested in switching to solar, he said.

Since the campaign started, he’s met with dozens of Brooklyn homeowners in Central and South Brooklyn to answer questions about all things solar.

Photo: Barrio Solar / Supplied

“It’s been a process to try to convince homeowners that this isn’t a scam,” Estrada said. Brooklyn’s communities of color are used to being targeted by predatory campaigns, so they’re rightfully wary, he added. But he hopes he can show the benefit of the campaign.

The process involves Estrada coming to your house, assessing your ConEd bill, and checking out your roof to see if solar panels are viable.

“That reduces soft costs for the solar installers and automatically gives us better pricing,” he said.

Photo: Barrio Solar / Supplied

If a homeowner is still interested in getting solar, Barrio Solar will present them to the solar installers as part of a “buyers group” of other interested Brooklyn homeowners. Presenting the job as a group brings the price of each install down again.

Finally, once the solar installers’ proposals are in, the homeowner chooses which provider, if any, they want to go for. Within about six to eight months, the home could be running on solar.

Benefits of Solar

The benefits are two-fold: Save money, and contribute to a clean energy future for the City.

The campaign does play into New York City’s commitment to achieving one gigawatt of solar citywide by 2030. The City says getting solar on private property is essential to achieving this goal, and it has also partnered with Solar One to drive solar conversion.

Barrio Solar says there are options for all homeowners to save by getting solar, even if you don’t get panels on your own roof.

Those who sign up for community solar—getting energy from other solar operations—are guaranteed 10% monthly savings on their electric bill, it says.

Those who either provide roof space for solar panels to be installed, or purchase their own solar panels, can save much more.

“If we can’t cover the roof with enough solar panels to offset at least 80% of your bill, we’re going to recommend you to a different program,” Estrada said.

Does My Roof Qualify?

If you make less than 120 percent of Area Media Income (that’s $128,160 for a couple), you also qualify for the $3,500 Barrio Solar grant to put towards the solar install.

While most buildings in NYC have the capability of going solar, there are some exceptions, Estrada said. If the roof is covered in shade due to nearby high buildings to the south, or trees, it may not be possible (although City trees can be trimmed with a call to 311). Pitched roofs are fine, but other strangely shaped roofs may not be.

Meanwhile in some historic districts—like areas of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy—the installations should not be visible from the street, ruling out solar canopies.

Meanwhile, experts say just one home installing a solar energy system has a measurable effect on the environment: Switching from fossil fuels to solar has the same emissions reduction effect as planting about 150 trees every single year for the lifetime of the solar panel system. 

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Jessy Edwards

Jessy Edwards is a writer based in Bushwick. Originally from New Zealand, she has written for the BBC, Rolling Stone, NBC New York, CNBC and her hometown newspaper, The Dominion Post, among others.

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