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Meet New York’s “Mr. Solar”

Marianne Schaefer in Green Ideas on July 27, 2017

Sunset Park, Brooklyn

Mr. Solar

Up on the energy-generating roof with "Mr. Solar," McGowan Southworth.

July 27, 2017

McGowan Southworth describes himself as an “artist, songwriter and sustainability advocate.” With his lanky blond hair and dark sunglasses, he certainly looks the part of the creative Brooklyn type. “Of course I wanted to be a rock star,” says Southworth, 41, who is an accomplished guitarist, percussionist, keyboard player and vocalist. “Like any other kid I wanted to live the dream of life as art and art as life. I was fortunate enough to make a living at it.”

But in 2008, Southworth founded a nonprofit called Brooklyn Power and dedicated his life to cracking the solar code for New York City co-ops and other multi-family buildings. He researched, developed, consulted, cajoled, and encouraged hundreds of co-ops to find ways to adopt renewable energy. “Solar is the movement of the moment,” he says. “Distributing energy ownership to individuals rather than power brokers is more rock ’n’ roll than anything.”

Southworth grew up in Lancaster, New Hampshire, where his parents ran a water-powered sawmill built before the Civil War. The mill generated its own electricity – plus a surplus that was returned to the grid. “My parents were intellectual hippies,” he says, “and renewable energy was the main topic of conversation around the dinner table. I think I’ll never give up music, but right now I’m more enamored with renewable energy.”

Southworth lives in a self-managed, 70-unit co-op in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. While serving on the board at his previous co-op, he says, “I realized that our overhead was largely determined by our energy bills. Taxes got much higher, all our fixed costs went up, we needed a new roof and a new boiler. It was really hard on people who didn’t have a lot of money. As an artist, I was one of them." But he couldn’t even persuade a solar installer to visit the building. “They all thought it was crazy,” he says, “but I didn’t buy it. I started looking into it and learning about it and found out about all these incredible incentives. And I thought, how could co-ops not do this?”

When he became president of the Sunset Park board in 2012, Southworth’s goal was to install solar panels on the co-op’s unused rooftop asset. He eventually secured sizable incentives, and solar panels were installed. Along the way, Southworth had educated himself on tax laws, design, installation, fire codes, and more. “By then I had the tools and the knowledge to convince other co-ops to do the same,” he says.

When Southworth became a father four years ago, his wife suggested he start charging for his extensive consulting work. In 2015, Brooklyn Power became an official consulting business, and it now works under the umbrella of the engineering firm Zero Carbon. “By evangelizing the gospel of rooftop solar he had developed a pipeline of about 5 megawatts of potential projects in just a few years” – enough to power more than 800 homes, says Nick Lombardi, president of Zero Carbon. “That’s just amazing for one single guy without ever having spent a dime on marketing.”

Even though Southworth has morphed from musician to activist to businessman, his passion burns as hot as ever. He recently helped the Parkside Association co-op in Sunset Park install a solar array. “He did so much more than what he had to do,” says Erica Oppenheimer, president of the co-op’s board. “He explained it all to us again and again, helped out everywhere. He really didn’t have to do all of that. But he is just so passionate about it.”

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