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Buffalo, Sun City: Can Solar Power Bloom in Western New York?

Buffalo Skyline

Perhaps even more so than the other rust-to-green cities we’ve profiled here of late — Trenton! Hartford! Buffalo just yesterday! — Buffalo has issues. Bigger than those other cities to begin with, both the city itself and the suburbs around it are shrinking steadily. Roughly 1.1 million people lived in Buffalo alone not so long ago; today the entirety of Erie County has just 900,000 residents. The 2006 census put residential vacancies in the city at a whopping 22.8 percent. So, yeah — there is work to be done. The good news is that, in a tentative and still-emerging way, Buffalo seems to be doing that work.

This demographic information is not something I just know, by the way — it’s from this sobering-but-hopeful blog post from Anthony Armstrong of the Great Lakes Urban Exchange. “For our City and region,” Armstrong writes, “if we accept and plan for this shift in an honest and meaningful way, shrinking does not mean dying.” The prospect of “becoming a green hub” is a buzz-phrase that has lost some of its zip through frequent and facile repetition, but there’s something to it in Buffalo’s case. Shrinking can actually mean rebirth if Buffalo revives its rather stately building stock by continuing to pursue retrofits, for instance — something hopefully presaged by 45 Earhart Street earning New York’s fourth LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations & Maintenance. Buffalo also has another, more unique green attribute in Niagara Falls. And not just as a tourist destination, either. (Although, seriously: look at it, aren’t you glad that’s not a picture of a solar panel?)

Niagara Falls, you see, has been powering Buffalo and much of Western New York for generations, and currently produces 2.4 million kilowatts of energy per year. With comparatively cheap and comparatively green hydroelectric power keeping the lights on and water flowing, and low demand keeping real estate prices low, the stage is pretty well set for Buffalo to enjoy a bloom in green industry. So far, the shape that has taken is — perhaps not surprisingly, given Buffalo’s history — manufacturing, as the area has become a hub for manufacturers in the solar power industry. While this post on New York Real Estate Journal by David Griggs is pretty frankly boosterish — it should be, as Griggs is director of business development at Buffalo Niagara Enterprise — it’s also fairly convincing. If the photovoltaic industry is going to work, those panels are going to have to get made somewhere, and it isn’t going to happen in lower Manhattan or Park Slope. Once could imagine a brighter green hope for Buffalo than heavy metal and chemical manufacturing — for that’s what Buffalo-area PV contributors Dupont, Globe Metallurgical and others do — but the city could see some seriously positive results if it’s able to make itself central in an emerging green industry; targeted incentives described here should help. If the (still notional) revitalization to follow involves more retrofits, all the better. We need things to write about at gbCitiesOtherThanNYC.

The only downside, really, is that notoriously cloudy Buffalo won’t get much out of those solar panels. While the Buffalo News breathlessly reported that Buffalo won Western New York’s “Sunshine Derby” – over noted beach communities Rochester and Syracuse — it still had just 167 sunny days last year. Brighter times, though — and I can’t believe I’m writing this concluding sentence, either — may be ahead.

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