← Back

The East Village, (Em)Powered: Part Two

This special two-part post explores the legacy of the energy pioneers who constructed solar collectors and a windmill at 519 East Eleventh Street. In the first installment we explored the origins of the East Village’s renewable energy fixtures and the activists who had the gall to imagine them. This week we will dive into the resulting legal battle between these environmental warriors and the mighty ConEd, and their legislative legacy.

Hand-drawn poster of 519 East 11th Street by the Energy Task Force of The Eleventh Street Movement. Date unknown.

The windmill on the roof of 519 East Eleventh Street was a trailblazing victory for residents, the East Village, and urban environmentalists alike. The first of its kind in urban America, the rooftop structure was able to generate two kilowatts of electricity by itself – just enough to power the building’s rooftop solar collectors and light all of the common space in the building’s hallways and neighboring gardens. 

However, looming above Avenue C just two blocks away was a New York City energy powerhouse: Con Edison. Just a week after hoisting the windmill up, the group was sued by ConEd. The utility provider claimed the windmill’s electrical generation was not only illegal, but also posed a threat to their power grid when the apparatus generated surplus electricity, a claim that was largely unsubstantiated. The windmill’s real threat to ConEd was its potential to challenge its monopoly and pave the way for urban alternative energy generation.

The 519 East 11th Street windmill in the shadow of the ConEd factory on Avenue C. 1970s.

Luckily, the group at 519 East Eleventh Street encountered a wealth of support in their legal battle. Former United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark approached them with an offer to argue their case pro bono. With Clark’s help, and the voices of their community ringing out, the Public Utilities Commision ruled in favor of the windmill warriors and even mandated that Con Edison must buy back any excess power generated by the windmill. Though this often meant the windmill’s profit only amounted to a few extra cents a month, the ruling was a staggering victory for urban renewable energy.

The case ultimately became a vital component of the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, a law enacted in November 1978 which promoted energy conservation by encouraging the use of power from non-utility power producers. In doing so, the law bolstered the use of domestic energy and renewable energy including wind, solar, and hydroelectric sources. Not only did the little windmill that could challenge the energy landscape of New York City, it also had lasting effects on the nation.

The residents and activists at 519 11th Street celebrating after their legal victory against ConEd. 1977. Courtesy of The New York Times.

Meanwhile, the windmill proved to be a worthwhile investment for the residents of 519 East Eleventh Street. The five-story tenement was located in what was then one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City, but the building was supplied with utilities at among the highest rates in the country. However, with the windmill in place, within a year the cost of the residents’ heating fuel bills dropped to $48 per room/year. Comparable buildings in the area paid $110 per room/year. The windmill was even credited with powering the building through the devastating blackout of July 1977. 

As the original group of energy crusaders and residents moved on and out over the years, the windmill eventually fell into disuse. The wind generator was completely abandoned in 1993, though the solar panels on the roof continued to generate the building’s hot water. Around 15 years later, the iconic windmill was removed from the roof. Though the fixture no longer stands to provide the building with energy, its legacy remains intact in the hearts of community members and in the language of our laws. The windmill represented a radical first step toward urban energy self-sufficiency and toward a challenge of energy monopolies. Perhaps most importantly, when the group at 519 East Eleventh Street erected the windmill, they not only powered a building, they empowered a community.

Color photo of the windmill and solar panels at 519 East 11th Street. Date unknown.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *