Moment in the Sun

Written by Renee Olson, Photos by Hassan Hajjaj

Moment in the Sun

To a small child—6, maybe 7 years old—the dirt driveway, lined with dark, densely packed pine trees, stretched on for what seemed like forever until it reached the road. Agamemnon Otero ’01 made a habit of walking down that drive in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, and up the adjoining road another half mile to his aunt’s house.

“She’d make brownies for me,” says Otero. “Then it would get late, and I would go home.” The darkness was impenetrable, not even broken by a lamp in a neighbor’s window. “There’s a big hill, and there was not one house between hers and ours. I’d get so scared, and I’d run. I’d envision these monsters, these Ghostbusters monsters, flying behind me.”

But one black, moonless night, Otero decided he’d had enough. In a loud voice, he issued his threat. “‘No,’” he said, emphatically. “‘I’m just gonna turn around.’ I took a breath in and turned around, and they flew right through me. I breathed them in. And that was it.”

The boy who shouted down the darkness is now a key force in bringing solar power to Londoners. In 2012, Otero founded the nonprofit Repowering London, Britain’s first renewable energy company for the residents of public housing—housing estates, as the Brits call them—who struggle to pay the rates charged by Britain’s largest energy corporations. To date, 34 buildings across four housing estates power their communal areas with solar panels, some of which have been built and installed by residents themselves. The project, which currently serves 11,000 people, also has a built-in community investment component, which puts dividends back into the hands of residents.

Otero speaks less about kilowatts and carbon trade than about the human connections and well-being his projects generate. “I like sitting with Leila Fortunato and Ann Canaii and Melissa Harflett and other people who live on these estates,” says Otero. “We’ll come together on a Tuesday night, and maybe one person will cook or someone will bring something. We’ll talk about the estate and what kind of energy systems we can put on it, and what things we can make and do. It feeds my soul. It feeds my appetite for community.”

“We’ll talk about the estate and what kind of energy systems we can put on it, and what things we can make and do. It feeds my soul. It feeds my appetite for community.”

The Uruguayan-born Otero, whom The Guardian has called a “polymath,” has created a niche for himself by helping people meet their basic needs, with a touch of DIY. His company set up what he calls financially viable systems, including an energy cooperative, that estate residents can own and manage. “Energy’s gotten out of control,” says Otero, who earned a master’s degree in architecture, energy, and sustainability at the University of East London.

Britain, Otero’s adopted country since 2002, is taking notice of his commitment. In 2014 he was named a London Leader, a nod from the mayor’s office placing Otero among the city’s innovators in sustainability. A year later he won a royal pat on the back when he was made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, or MBE. Tweeters will find the honor, which recognizes sustained community achievements, next to Otero’s name on his Twitter feed.

At Sarah Lawrence, Otero concentrated in pre-med courses, literature, and visual arts. Painting teacher Ursula Schneider (visual arts emerita) became an especially powerful influence. “She would never tell you what to do,” he says, “but she’d say, ‘Do what you’re afraid of. If you’re afraid of breaking it, break it. If you’re afraid of falling, fall.’ I did, and it was terrifying.”

"[Ursula Schneider] would never tell you what to do, but she'd say, 'Do what you are afraid of.'"

A painting from Schneider’s course, part of a series called Mother and Son, now hangs in Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary. Otero is loaning the hospital the series, and he made one painting a permanent gift in gratitude for the care he received from the UK’s National Health Service.

Before arriving at Sarah Lawrence, Otero faced a rare and life-threatening bladder cancer at 18. For seven months, he says, doctors could not identify what was making him sick. “I started bleeding,” he says. “I wasn’t long for this world.”

While the search for answers continued, Otero reached inside himself for strength. “I was going to sit with this pain and the not knowing and the ‘why me,’ and I was going to cry about it and draw about it and see what came up,” he says. “That was the courage. To just live with the not knowing.” That, and acknowledging that he had done all he could. “For doers, the hardest thing is giving up.”

"That was the courage. To just live with the not knowing. ... For doers, the hardest thing is giving up."

A team of doctors in Westchester County eventually restored him to health, but eight years later he faced a second cancer diagnosis. Doctors told him it wasn’t related to the earlier cancer, but Otero doubts that. With the second cancer overcome while in Scottish hospitals, Otero’s first impulse with solar power was to provide it to medical facilities. “Hospitals have huge energy demands,” he says. “Their real priority is about saving lives, not about saving energy.”

In 2014, Otero moved aboard a 120-foot-long, 44-year-old trawler, an apt abode for a man named not for the Greek mythological figure, but for the HMS Agamemnon, a ship in the Royal Navy that served in both the American and French revolutions.

Via his Skype-connected bike helmet (“This is where I hold most of my meetings”), Otero applies his own prodigious energy planning future solar power projects. With the interest he’s received from abroad, expansion within and beyond the UK seems a given. Still, he says, “My projects are on the ground in London. That’s where I am right now.”

Repowering London just won a significant bid in South London’s Brixton neighborhood to bring solar power to Electric Avenue, the first market electrified in the city. It’s also the name of Eddy Grant’s 1982 hit song immortalizing riots that roiled Brixton the year before. “This is a really big deal,” says Otero, half-singing the lyrics, We’re gonna rock down to Electric Avenue.

To a neighborhood still struggling with chronic unemployment, Otero’s project provides paid internships that enable young people and adult mentors to learn the building and installation process. The project also established a business cooperative to teach merchants how to own and run a power station.

For Otero, it brings to mind something an estate resident said when he explained that he was giving people a chance to get off the estate. “You’re not giving them a way out, you’re giving them a way in—to society,” the woman told him. “They don’t want to leave. They just want a level playing field.”

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