John McNally: Chance taken sets a tone for career, energy policy
Charlie Copeland shares his story on how he helped shape landmark PURPA Act.
The world has changed,” says Charlie Copeland, P.E. and president and CEO of New York City-based Goldman Copeland Consulting Engineers.
It so happens Copeland had a critical role in those changes, particularly in the Big Apple, and it’s because he took a chance.
In the mid-1970s — in the midst a nationwide energy crisis — a group of self-sufficient homesteaders wanted to revitalize the building at 519 East 11th St., a structure situated in the middle of a crime-ridden neighborhood.
The homesteaders had installed solar panels and a windmill on the roof, generating power for the building. Copeland, who had recently left a large firm because it didn’t believe in energy efficiency, came to the project and worked pro bono.
“I volunteered to help these people on the Lower East Side,” Copeland recalled to pme. “You wouldn’t believe what was going on (in that area). Most of the buildings were burned out, including 519 East 11th. The streets were filled with burned-out cars. It was amazing.”
Copeland designed the system and oversaw the installation of 30 Sunworks solar collectors that included the infrastructure that transported and preheated the incoming domestic hot water for the building.
Copeland notes solar systems that heated domestic systems were considered outside the norm in the region at the time.
“I wouldn’t say it was the first, but it was relatively new. Especially for New York City, it wasn’t that common,” he says. “There were a few systems on the Upper East Side, but this was the first in a disaster area like the Lower East Side.”
The 519 East 11th project also caused an uproar as the homesteaders wanted excess power from the windmill and solar collectors generated to be sent back into Con Edison’s (New York City’s utility company) grid. The case went to court and eventually was ruled in favor of the homesteaders. This case and the project was a forbearer to what became the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (better known as PURPA).
This past Nov. 9 was the 40th anniversary of the crucial legislation for alternative energy. Copeland says it was exciting to have played a small role in the development of PURPA and in invigorating the dilapidated Lower East Side, which in turn helped spur his career and business along the way.
“It absolutely helped (revitalize the area). I wouldn’t give all the credit to me as an engineer, but to the homesteaders that renovated the building,” he says. “I give them a tremendous amount of credit. I am thrilled to be a part of it though.
“Getting through the mid-1970s, when some of us just started our careers, we thought we would be out on the streets when New York City went bankrupt, which was close to happening. We are happy we survived and now we have lots of great clients. Most of the major real-estate folks have been our clients for years.”
Copeland was willing to get involved because he believed in a cause. He had no idea of knowing how many doors would open because of one project he offered to work on for free. Copeland believed renewable energy and efficiency were the future. He saw a chance to make New York City a little bit better and he jumped at that chance.
“You have to do the right job and people will ultimately recognize you,” he says.
Sometimes it’s just that simple.