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Solar Energy Grows in Brooklyn: How a Progressive Board Got Residents' OK

Ronda Kaysen in Board Operations on February 7, 2013

Sun Garden Homes, Sunset Park, Brooklyn

Workers installing rooftop solar panels at Sun Garden Homes co-op, Sunset Park, Brooklyn
Feb. 7, 2013

The co-op board's unlikely president, a 35-year-old songwriter raised in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, spearheaded the effort. And he has more ideas for how to turn this working-class community into a model for energy efficiency. "I'm in the rock and roll business," says board president McGowan Southworth, standing in the co-op's interior garden. "But this stuff is way cooler." 

When Southworth was nominated for the post as president last April, he warned shareholders that he would push for solar power if elected. Other residents were wary of his ideas; however, no one challenged him. Immediately after his election, he stepped up his efforts to convince fellow shareholders that solar power was a worthwhile investment. After all, energy conservation was a concept he knew well.

Southworth grew up on a 19th-century water-powered sawmill that generated more energy than it used. His father and uncle worked in construction. And now his brother employs the European passivhaus ("passive heating") method in building construction as well.

Working-Class Co-op Works It Out

Board members printed posters

explaining how the building

would finance the project and

where the savings would come.

Southworth figured there must be a way these methods could translate to an urban setting the residents could certainly use the savings. Sun Garden Homes is a working-class building with many residents on a tight budget. Since 2007, maintenance fees have doubled to $100 per room. Southworth attributed the increase to rising property taxes and large utility bills. In the next five years, the building will likely need a new boiler, an investment that could cost $150,000. But in order to reduce utility costs, the co-op would have to invest heavily upfront in a new technology, and many residents were skeptical.

"They just didn't think it was feasible," says Southworth. So the board president and other enthusiastic residents set in for the hard sell. Sun Garden Homes may not have as much cash on hand as other New York City co-ops, but it has one thing that is hard to come by: an unusually large footprint and ample sunlight.

To explain how the project would work, co-op board members printed up giant posters that explained how the building would finance the project and from where the savings would come. They held a meeting of all the shareholders in the community room, a subterranean hall that once housed another boiler. Ultimately, residents were won over. 

"It was everybody's dream, young and old," says Southworth. "They all loved the idea of solar power and didn't like the idea of having to buy energy from a dirty source." Nearly six months later, the posters still hang from the walls of the community room.

To see how the co-op financed this money-saving plan, read part two.


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