Photo by Getty Images/Bim.
Most people I know favor the idea of solar power, but not everyone has $100,000 sitting around to pay for the installation of panels. The other day I learned you don't need a wad of cash to begin the transition to solar power.
My friend Colin Touhey took notice when I posted on social media my wish to put solar panels on the roof of my apartment building. Colin is the co-founder of a clean tech company called Pvilion. He suggested we meet.
So last Thursday, we met at the Dumbo House, the swanky social club that occupies the top ﬂoor of an old tobacco factory in Brooklyn. As we entered, we pushed past the olive green velvet drapes toward the main room where big bay windows lend the place a ﬂattering almost foggy light. As far as the eye can see, young, beautiful upstarts tapped away at their laptops.
We grabbed a table and hit the lunch buffet. It looked like Easter Sunday all over again even though it was only a grey Thursday in January. Someone is on standby to carve the turkey and slice the salmon. Huge salad bowls overﬂowed with power greens and roasted root vegetables and feta cheese and chickpeas. The dessert tarts brimmed with berries and fresh cream. I marveled at the weekday abundance. It was a nice change of pace from my usual avocado toast and hummus.
We settled into our seats and I asked Colin to tell me a bit about his background. At 32, Colin was already an entrepreneur with a successful track record. His company designed solar canopies and tents for major events and humanitarian relief. Growth has been steady and robust.
"You're so young," I said. "What gave you the conﬁdence to do this?"
"I come from a family of entrepreneurs," Colin said. "It's in my blood."
At Colin's house, the daily dinner table conversations revolved around innovation and new business ideas. "It never really occurred to me that I would go work for somebody else," he said. "I mean, why would I do that?”
Although Colin studied electrical engineering, over time he became more interested in the ﬁnancial side of solar energy. "I'm all about the bottom line," Colin explained. "The numbers have to make sense for the project to make sense. And fortunately, with solar energy, the numbers work."
He said that in New York there was a set of people willing to invest in solar, regardless of cost beneﬁt, because it aligns with their politics. "But that's not my customer," Colin explained. Many of his customers work in distribution in the Midwest. "These are people who voted for Trump," he said. "My job is to help them understand that solar energy is fundamentally a conservative idea. There is nothing conservative about draining the earth of fossil fuels."
Colin said he doesn't use words like sustainable and doesn't use the color green in his logo. "These are things that signal liberal ideals," he said. "If I hit people over the head with liberal ideology, I'll do a disservice to the product."
One of Pvilion's current clients is the U.S. Military. The company is designing solar powered tents for disaster relief efforts. I asked Colin how the idea of renewable energy ﬂies with the military. "These guys aren't necessarily concerned about climate change," he said. "They care about running things efﬁciently. In a natural disaster, they don't want to worry about plugging things in or communications breaking down because they can't get their generators to work. You don't have to believe in climate change for solar energy to make sense."
I asked Colin if his work helps him cope emotionally with the ongoing environmental crisis. He said his job keeps him from getting too depressed about it. "I'm doing my part. I mean I don't know what more I could possibly be doing," he said.
Colin said he feels he's struck the perfect balance with a successful business that also promotes the inevitable transition to renewable energy. He underscored the fact that solar power was a ﬁscally responsible choice, especially in the state of New York where tax incentives made it a no-brainer.
"I just don't have faith that people will make the changes they need to make if it doesn't make sense ﬁnancially," he said. "Frankly I think it's unfair to expect people to go against their nature in that way."
We arrived at the heart of our conversation. As I mentioned, I'd been exploring ways to install solar panels on the roof of my co-op building and Colin suggested we create what was called a Community Solar Garden.
Community Solar Gardens generate clean distributed energy that anyone with a ConEd bill can enjoy. Using this model, Colin offered to ﬁnance and manage the installation of solar panels on our rooftop at no cost to our board or individual residents.
"Together, we're basically building a renewable power plant," he said. "And we will use your rooftop and as many other rooftops we can ﬁnd to collect the energy."
To date, Colin has ﬁnanced the installation of solar panels on ﬁve buildings in Brooklyn and Staten Island. If you are interested in converting your building to solar, you may want to explore this option. He said the arrangement is a win-win because the building and residents can collect the tax incentives on a state and federal level, which are signiﬁcant. The panels will also power the common areas of the building and reduce our individual energy bills substantially. In turn, his company will keep a portion of the proﬁts and continue to invest in the installation of more panels.
"We're talking about basically free, unlimited, renewable energy that is being incentivized by the state," Colin said. His plan for our building estimated that the panels on our rooftop will offset 45 metric tons of carbon dioxide and 107 barrels of petroleum annually. The plan stated that the panels will generate enough electricity to power approximately 13 individual family homes per year.
It seemed to me that Colin had found a way to talk about one constructive solution to the climate crisis that might make sense to a broader swath of people. In a time when our country is so ideologically divided, this was a conversation I wanted to continue to take part in. In the meantime, let's get those panels up!
Julie Flynn Badal is a Brooklyn-based writer and educator. She has published her work with WNYC, Salon, The Huffington Post, Shambhala, Origins Magazine, Bustle, and Medium. She is currently working on a book that examines the notion of wellbeing in these troubled times.