The Big Apple takes a bite out of solar energy

Close-up of solar panels on the roof of the Atelier, a luxury development in midtown Manhattan.
Brad Quick | CNBC

Forty-six floors above the streets of Manhattan, the top view from the Atelier—a luxury developmenthas everything you'd expect given its midtown location.

From the roof, you can easily pick out the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and peer down at the deck of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

But there's one sight that might come as a bit of a surprise: Black solar panels sitting on the southwest corner of the building's roof.

Dan Neiditch, president of River 2 River Realty which operates the Atelier, had the panels installed in 2011. He says the system generates about 5 percent of the building's energy, subsequently cutting utility costs by roughly $40,000 a year.

The Atelier isn't the only New York City location experimenting with alternative energy. More solar projects are popping up across the Empire State, with sun technology increasingly dotting the skyscrapers and buildings of New York's urban landscape.

The proposed Lowline Project, which will convert the abandoned Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal into an underground park, will use solar energy to create "remote skylights" that will light up the space.

And Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. is calling for solar to power LinkNYC kiosks. The structures will replace New York's public payphones with free Wi-Fi and charging stations.

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Solar renaissance

Spurred by cheaper solar technology and incentives introduced under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg beginning in 2008, New York City is experiencing a solar renaissance.

According to a study by Environment Ohio, an environmental advocacy group, The Big Apple has a solar capacity of over 30 megawatts. That's enough energy to power more than 4,500 homes, and is up from about 10 megawatts just four years ago.

While the gain is still well below the 132 megawatt capacity of Los Angeleswhich Environment Ohio lists as the country's most solar friendly cityit's enough to grab New York City the eighth spot on the list.

Just last year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced plans to invest more than $1 billion in solar projects, with the hopes of increasing the state's solar power by 10-fold by 2023.

Solar energy gets a facelift

Developers' embrace of solar is the latest bonus for a sector that's seen plenty of highs and lows in a churning energy complex.

Battery technology, for example, has not advanced as quickly as solar panels. Although panels can harness solar energy, storage can be problematic. Critics of solar's growth potential and ability to scale often point to Solyndra, the panel manufacturer that went bankrupt in 2011 after receiving $535 million in government funding.

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The oil effect

More recently, falling crude oil prices have sent investors scrambling out of solar stocks, with many fearing cheaper oil could make renewable energy sources less attractive.

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But for now, more New York developers can't ignore falling costs for solar technology, rebates for investing in renewable energy and the long-term energy savings of going solar.

Neiditch—also a financial backer in Samba Energy, a Manhattan-based solar company—is part of the region's push into solar.

Samba Energy provided the solar panels for the Atelier. Neiditch plans to bring solar to some of his other River 2 River properties, adding more buildings will follow suit as solar costs continue to come down amid advances in technology and manufacturing.

Bigger solar bets for 2015

Dan Neiditch is president of River 2 River Realty. which operates the Atelier.
Brad Quick | CNBC

Looking ahead into 2015, Neiditch plans to make even bigger bets on solar.

"We're having our next solar phase coming in the spring, and we're going to add another 100 panels to the side of the building," says Neiditch.

"That will give us another 10 percent of our energy. So overall we're looking at about $120,000 in savings per year. We've already made back our money from our initial investment after a year and a half," he said.

Neiditch says he's using energy savings to reinvest in the Atelier building.

Perks include free breakfasts for tenants, addition of a tennis court, even a simulated ice skating rink on the roof. That's partly how Neiditch views the buildings solar panels—as a bonus feature that helps attract new residents.

"It's well received," says Neiditch. "It's one of our main selling points."