Solar skyscraper brings renewable energy to new heights

Despite its dense urban environment, the Big Apple is striving for more solar. Residential installations have surged to nearly 6,000 in 2016, from less than 200 five years ago, according to SEIA. It’s no surprise many New York City residents would rather spend money on Broadway shows and top-rated restaurants than rising electricity prices. The state government is also pushing for more solar, committing to 50% renewable power by 2030, and dedicating millions to 11 large renewable projects throughout the state.

In a city of skyscrapers, commercial development isn’t always easy. That’s what Urban Health Plan (UHP), a network of community health centers, found when it sought to install solar on one of its roofs. Seeking to go solar to obtain LEED-certification for its Simpson Pavilion in the South Bronx, the company approached local installer Quixotic Systems. However, when vice president Gerry Heimbuch saw all the roof’s mechanical systems and obstructions, he thought the lack of space made installing solar on the roof impossible.

But this wasn’t the installer’s first rodeo. Heimbuch has an electrical engineering degree and a “serial entrepreneurial” sprit, which is a marvelous mix for starting a solar business. He and his business partner, the company’s president Richard Kleinhave, have run the company since 1999, making it one of the oldest solar energy contractors in the city, if not the entire tristate area.

“Everything is a little more challenging in New York City than in other places,” Heimbuch said. “There are more tall buildings that don’t have large roof spaces, so you’re always running into geometry issues.”

Nevertheless, Quixotic Systems has installed residential solar PV, solar thermal systems and several megawatt-sized projects. The contractor has developed a niche in projects deemed more difficult.

“We try to solve the problems other companies can’t,” Heimbuch said. Quixotic Systems was the perfect match for UHP.

Heimbuch had learned about wall-mounted solar at an Intersolar tradeshow in Munich last year. Vertically mounted solar is popular in Germany, but it hasn’t been done much in the states and had never been attempted by Heimbuch and his team. Still, he was inspired to pitch the idea of “building a solar wall” for UHP.

Did they think he was crazy? “Yes of course,” he remembered with a chuckle. “But we did an in-house rendering, and they loved the way it looked and that it would help UHP achieve LEED certification.”

UHP was on board; now Heimbuch just had to convince his team. “They thought I was crazy too, of course,” he said. “But once you get on the scaffold and do what you have to do, those fears and hesitations go away.”

Still, the project had its difficulties. “The first time you do something it’s always a little bit challenging,” Heimbuch said. “We had to figure out where to attach the solar, how to attach it and get our engineers and the building’s engineers to agree that ‘yes, this thing’s going to stay on the wall.’”

Quixotic Systems designed large, custom racking with vertical and crossed members that 104 SunPower panels attached to in a lattice fashion.

Heimbuch explained that other design aspects were also carefully considered because it’s difficult to change something among the panels once scaffolding is removed. “Everything was done and checked a hundred times,” Heimbuch said. “We’re not going to get up there any time soon if we don’t have to.”

The same philosophy applied to the inverter placement and wire management. Fronius Symo inverters were put on the roof near the electrical service panel.

In all, the team installed the 37-kW system in about three months. In comparison, a system of the same size usually takes a couple weeks.

“The install took a little longer than we wanted because we had to be more careful,” Heimbuch said. “We were conservative in our approach—dropping something from six stories up is not fun.”

The solar installation will offset the center’s energy use by 10%, saving an estimated $230,000 over the next 25 years. The system is expected to generate 31,986 kWh in its first year.

While the system doesn’t have the same production profile as it would on the roof, it will actually perform best in the fall and winter because the panels are on the building’s south-facing wall. Roof-mounted solar tends to produce best in the spring and summer. The client is happy with the results.

“We’re a progressive organization, so everything we do—from providing care to employing people to our energy efficiency efforts—we do the best we can,” said Paloma Izquierdo-Hernandez, president and CEO of UHP, in a press release. “Adding this distinctive solar system not only helps our environment, it saves money that we can put back into services for our community.”

In addition to the solar wall, the facility features sustainably sourced and recycled building materials; an efficient heating, cooling and lighting system; and a “green roof” with 2,000 sq. ft of plants to mitigate heat and reduce storm water runoff.

The project has already generated a lot of attention and is up for the SunPower 2016 Intelegant Award. Quixotic Systems is planning to do a similar installation for a new building going up in Brooklyn. Heimbuch said the installation should be easier, not only because it’s the company’s second vertical-mount array, but his team is working with the building developers and architects to integrate the solar into the building’s designs, rather than add it on after completion. SPW


  1. davirael says:

    i want to know is it is possible to develope this ideas in some cities of Peru where there is huge sunlight.
    we can take some roof houses to begin.

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