Coney Island

Coney Island station’s pricy solar panels have been dark for 7 years. No one knows when they’re coming back.

“We're wasting all of that solar energy every day that it’s not running.”

November 22, 2019 Scott Enman
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Stillwell Terminal’s gleaming solar panel roof was once touted by the MTA as the centerpiece of a $310 million rehabilitation of the Coney Island station, which the transit agency declared a “Sparkling Jewel.” Yet the state-of-the-art project, the largest of its kind in the nation to cover a transit facility, was in operation for only seven years — and it hasn’t provided power since 2012.

When the terminal flooded during Superstorm Sandy, the water knocked out electrical equipment at the street level. But the solar panels, which are hurricane resistant, went largely undamaged. In May 2014, the MTA declared that plans were “currently underway for the system’s rehabilitation.” More than five years later, the panels are still offline.

“It was the biggest system of its kind in the world when it was built and really, New York City Transit and MTA were incredibly visionary and bold to build it in the first place because it really did set a precedent in all kinds of ways,” said Gregory Kiss, the architect of the sun-powered roof.

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“It was an amazing thing that they did and I give them lots of credit, but it’s kind of strange and surprising that for whatever reason they haven’t been able to fix it in such a long time.”

The 76,000-square-foot terrace, unveiled in 2005, provided the station with about 15 percent of its electricity per year, or roughly 250,000-kilowatt hours of energy every year. That’s equivalent to the annual power of 40 single-family homes. The system saved the MTA roughly $52,500 a year, depending on the number of sunny days.

In the time that the system has been out of order, the solar panels could have saved the agency around $367,500.

Here’s a look at the station’s roof. Photo: Adam Friedberg

The canopy provided electricity for the 100-year-old station’s lights, token booths, police facility and crew quarters, but it was not connected to the grid, meaning any excess electricity was wasted.

Due to millions of dollars in damage caused by Sandy, however, the MTA said it had to triage its resources to areas that directly affected train and bus service.

“As part of our overall program to recover from the storm we are currently engaging with the private energy services industry to explore strategies for restoring the solar roof system at the Stillwell Avenue station,” MTA spokesperson Andrei Berman told the Eagle. The MTA declined to comment on why the system hasn’t been fixed, despite saying in 2014 that plans were “underway” to fix it.

The MTA could not provide an exact price tag for the solar project, but installing solar panels in Germany’s Lehrter Station cost roughly $4.8 million, according to Wired.

As the largest above-ground station in the subway system and the largest rapid-transit terminal in the world, the Stillwell Avenue project was likely well above that figure, and Kiss said the MTA tends to spend more money to make things last longer.

“The way that New York City Transit builds things is incredibly durable,” Kiss said. “They build things to a much higher standard then you’ll ever see in the private sector because their subways run 24/7 all year; they never stop. The costs that the subway system pays for things are really not comparable to just about any other kind of project.”

Here’s a look at the underside of the solar panels from the inside of the Stillwell Avenue station. Photo: Adam Friedberg

The dome, made of glass and steel, was designed by Kiss’ firm Kiss + Cathcart. The project was awarded an honorable mention in 2007 for being a top 10 green building.

The roof was estimated to cut back on more than 17,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions over 40 years, according to the New York Post.

Kiss said he was perplexed as to why the system wasn’t up and running already, and argued that the MTA could immediately reap financial benefits by turning it on.

“Fixing it would be totally worthwhile because basically the whole system, except for that relatively small part that was in that downstairs room, is fine. It’s ready to go,” he said. “They should do it right away, because we’re wasting all of that solar energy every day that it’s not running.”

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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