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Energy pioneer recalls windmills, solar panels and New Yorkers who led charge for change

Sustainability may be a popular trend, but for Charles Copeland, he was already working on the ideas behind energy efficiency 40 years ago.

Copeland, president and CEO of engineering firm Goldman Copeland, helped a group of East Village residents revive a dilapidated and abandoned apartment building at 519 East 11th and make it into a self-sustaining structure.

And he became a part of local folklore as one of those responsible for erecting a windmill that kept the lights on during the 1977 blackout.

Copeland was hired by a local tenant group as the engineer overseeing the alternative energy aspect. He oversaw the work of installing solar collectors on the building that would capture solar energy to heat the water used in building at a time when solar power was as alien to New Yorkers as, well, an alien.

To make the building even more sustainable, the residents installed a windmill on the roof that generated power for their property and sent the excess into Con Edison’s grid.

Charlie Copeland

ConEd, which had a monopoly on the city’s utilities back then, sued the residents. There was no precedent for anyone to connect to their grid and supply electricity. But former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark defended the tenants pro bono and won. The case became a crucial component to the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, or PURPA, which was enacted in November 1978.

The new law promoted energy conservation by encouraging the use of power from non-utility power producers, promoting the idea of co-generation and supporting the use of hydroelectric power.

The 40th anniversary for PURPA recently passed and Copeland is still in the world of improving energy consumption and sustainability.

He said a lot has changed since his work on 519 East 11th Street. The city has seen many new buildings, and the developers behind them, embrace modern energy standards. Many new commercial developments boast their energy certifications such as LEED, Energy Star and WELL.

“Landlords who want large institutions to move into their buildings, they have to show these potential leasees that this building is on the cutting edge of being energy efficient,” Copeland said.
But the new buildings aren’t usually the ones with energy efficiency problems, Copeland said. New developments are often up-to-date with sustainability standards, but it’s the old buildings that have to be adapted.

In his work with older, historic buildings, he refers to a sign in his office as a guiding principle, “Maintenance is the vitality of civilization.”

Photo via Museum of the City of New York

Much like his historic work with 519 East 11th Street, Copeland is still rooted in fixing up older buildings. He said that his firms’ work with historic buildings, including religious and cultural institutions, usually involves uniquely-built structures.

“From my perspective, I love interesting work where it’s not just doing the normal number crunch of energy, but working with interesting structures,” Copeland said.

Due to their unique shape, a lot of churches and museums struggle with old HVAC systems that don’t properly heat or cool their entire building. Copeland said that outdoor mechanical equipment placed on the roof often needs repair after dealing with the elements for several decades.

“When buildings are designed, nobody wants to give up the space indoors, so they say just put the [equipment] on the roof, but that has long-term issues,” said Copeland, whose firm recently relocated the HVAC equipment at the Dance Theater of Harlem building.

Similarly, Copeland’s company was hired to work on energy solutions for Central Synagogue, Central Presbyterian Church and the St. James Theatre. His ongoing work with those older buildings mostly involves how to heat and cool the buildings better.

Copeland’s sustainability legacy also led to his firm’s continuing work with Grand Central Terminal that began in 1988.

The nearly 150-year-old transportation hub needed to remove its antiquated pipes and electrical systems and be replaced with a new HVAC system, backup generator and an automatic temperature-control system.

With his work on older buildings and the growing trend of sustainability in New York, Copeland said the city has become a leader in the US for green building. But he noted there was still work to be done.

“New York is more efficient than cities where buildings are spread out and not compact, where there’s more driving,” Copeland said. “But is it more efficient than buildings and cities in Europe? It’s probably way down on that list, but in the United States, it’s on the higher side.”

For New York to catch up to other leading cities, Copeland said there are many methods to look at.

“We need to do more creative stuff with energy,” Copeland said. “We’ve got to look at every possibility and I think the best thing we can do right now is cogeneration.”

Co-generation isn’t a new method, as it was part of the PURPA law that Copeland was involved in, but it’s starting to catch on more in the city.

The process of cogeneration uses an engine or turbine to generate electricity for a building, but uses the heat created in the process for the building’s heating.

Copeland said hsi firm recently installed the largest cogeneration plant in a commercial building at One Penn Plaza.
Alternatively, Copeland added that hydroelectric power — another method supported in the PURPA law — is also more popular these days, but cautioned that nothing is without its downsides.

For hydroelectric power, he recently visited Salmon River in Upstate New York where a small hydroelectric plant was installed. He believes the presence of the plant may have had an impact on the presence of fish in the river.

Even with all these varying solutions on energy consumption, Copeland said there’s still no perfect method and that the industry can be doing better for future generations.

“There are no home runs,” Copeland said of energy solutions. “There’s no free lunch and we have to do the best we can.”

Picture top photo credit: Travis Price via Gothamist

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