For sale: 15-foot windmill. Must have tools for dismantling and removing it from Lower East Side rooftop.

When the resident owners of 519 East 11th Street installed a windmill and solar panels on their rooftop in 1976, they believed self-sufficiency would bring a more stable future. The low-income tenants had just spent three years converting their burned-out building into a co-op. Putting another $14,000 into technology that would give them more control over their homes, they felt, was a worthy investment.

“The windmill is a symbol that people can do something themselves,” says longtime resident Carolyn Curran. “It is hope for people getting out of poverty and finding their own solutions.”

The project set national precedents, creating the country’s first rooftop windmill generator. It was also the first small-scale power generator to receive credit from Con Edison for the extra electricity it produced and returned to the city’s grid.

After about three years of sporadic operation, however, it was clear that their innovative means of heating the building’s boiler and generating power to light the hallways and basement was not paying off. The water pipes heated by the rooftop panels began to leak. The windmill was so loud that tenants on the top floor had to turn it off to have a conversation. Its vibrations shook the entire building. In 1985, Hurricane Gloria knocked off one of the blades, and the windmill has not spun since.

The solar panels have not fared so well, either. Management crises and drugs plagued the building in the 1980s, detracting from efforts beyond maintaining the status quo. “We had to focus more on keeping our building together,” said Rafael Jacquez, the co-op’s president. They did not have the time or resources to invest in updating the technology, he says, and the new technology began to fall apart.

The East 11th Street co-op is not the only alternative energy pioneer that has since abandoned its vision. When the price of oil peaked in the 1970s, the government promoted solar energy through tax incentives and subsidies. Once oil stabilized a few years later, however, the feds all but abandoned the industry, according to Tom Thompson of 1st Rochdale Cooperative Group, a nonprofit that focuses on developing renewable energy sources. “The marketplace for solar hot water systems literally went away over night,” says Thompson. “As soon as a pump broke, there was no one to fix it anymore.”

While 11th Street residents have washed their hands of the experiment, rising energy costs have inspired other buildings to give clean energy a try. 1st Rochdale has launched the Green Apple Renewable Energy Program, an ambitious plan to install solar energy systems in 1,000 buildings in New York City over the next 10 years, including low-income co-operatives.

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