One hundred thirty years ago, in September of 1882, Thomas Edison switched on the world's first electrical supply network. It carried direct current electricity to 59 customers in Lower Manhattan. In the summer of 1883, less than a year after Edison’s Manhattan network, Martha's Vineyard got its first small electric plant — a generator in Hiawatha Park which powered about a dozen arc lights along Circuit Ave. The lights were smoky, dangerous, and burned only on summer evenings.
A few years later, a year-round power plant was built in Eastville to supply Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs.
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is an energy cooperative based on Martha’s Vineyard dedicated to the transition toward renewable energy while simultaneously maintaining the culture of the island. Learn more about Vineyard Power here: www.vineyardpower.com
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The rest of the island caught on slowly. Edgartown's streets were lit by oil lamps until 1896. Electric lines crept up South Road into Chilmark in the 1940s. Gay Head didn't get electricity until the 1950s. We no longer had to rely directly on fire, coal and oil lamps for light. Convenient, flick of a switch electricity had arrived.
At first, the island's electricity came from generators located on-island but owned and controlled off-island. In 1955, the island's last diesel power plant shut down and the island became entirely reliant on the mainland for our electricity. We were connected to a plant in New Bedford, and to the growing industrial power grid.
Over the past century the amount of coal, oil and gas used to light homes, businesses, towns and cities has expanded on massive scale. The US uses about a billion “short tons” of coal a year in electricity production.1 On a regional basis, figures from February 2012 show New England uses one hundred and thirteen thousand tons of coal to produce electricity.2 Overall, the burning of fossilized plant and animal life accounts for ninety percent of America’s energy. These fossils are limited resources. Some project extraction and production of oil, coal and natural gas will peak — likely within this generation.3
Fossil fuels is not the only story in the last one-hundred-thirty years. The first solar electric cell was built in the 1880s. After a century of slow product and market development, photovoltaic (PV) panels became a technically practical way to generate electricity for homes. On Martha’s Vineyard, PV panels were put on houses that had never been connected to the grid — as with some on the camps on Cape Pogue. In the 1990s and early 2000’s PV panels were installed around the island. Some of those early systems produced solar-generated power that flowed back into the grid. Grid-tied panels on these homes could be thought of as small “cottage industry” energy production sites. Other solar panel projects gave a few households energy independence — free of the grid and industrial electricity. But because of relatively high upfront cost, and consumer habit, decisions to install solar panels were for the most part made on moral, not economic, grounds. Since before the first Earth Day in April 1970 there’s been a powerful refrain: “We’re destroying the earth to light our homes.” Like it or not, moral arguments didn’t provide much market incentive. Until recently that’s where things stood. However, as Edison bet, things are changing.
Today, here on Martha’s Vineyard, a new solar energy economy is emerging. As a result of state and federal rebates, competitive mortgages on solar installations and Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs) it is now feasible and economically practical to conceive of, design, finance and build modest scale energy production sites on Martha’s Vineyard. As a result of these economic incentives, local towns and businesses are refocusing attention on the financial practicality of solar energy and land-lease projects. Aquinnah has agreed to install an array. Tisbury is looking into the economics of leasing land to install an array — potentially contributing four hundred thousand dollars in town revenue. Farmers are also leasing land to small-scale energy developers.4 Not all underused land suitable for solar arrays is farm or undeveloped land. For municipal and retail land, parking lots are a good example of underused land which can be put to use to generate local renewable electricity.
The array over Cronig's parking lot is an up-close example of these new “generators” going up in a high-traffic, public space. The arrays are a small-scale local power station at a grocery store. They offset the building’s fossil energy use by 25%. In economic terms, when the arrays are generating more electricity than Cronig’s uses, they will pump that energy back into the grid for credit. In addition, with every 1000 Kilowatts generated, Vineyard Power will receive SRECs which can be sold back to the energy supplier. A social benefit exists alongside the economic. With a nod to the future of electric cars on-island, people will be able to drive to the store, park in the shade beneath the arrays, and charge their cars. Perhaps most importantly, the arrays are a model of energy generation. The arrays at Cronig’s will familiarize people with a real life story of energy generation here on Martha’s Vineyard. In the near future, the relationship between people, open public parking space and energy production could become routine.
The solar arrays at Cronig’s went up quickly; however, they didn’t just spring into being. It took the collaborative interests, design and/or construction capacity of a bank, a retailer, a community organization and a design/build/energy company. The project is primarily a collaboration between Vineyard Power, Cronig's, and South Mountain Company. Vineyard Power is building a cooperative of residents and businesses “that own their energy future,”says Richard Andre of Vineyard Power. “We can build a renewable energy infrastructure around solar energy. The solar arrays at Cronig’s are a real demonstration of the physical thing.” To be viable the arrays must be more than a physical model; they must be a financial model as well. “This solar array also creates income. We need to have a functioning business model. Our success depends upon it. Edgartown National Bank is jazzed. Their financing helps it happen,” says Andre. Beyond financial viability and public awareness, the arrays, of course, reduce fossil fuel consumption. “The renewable energy put into the grid backs out and replaces fossil fuels,” says Andre. “The state of Massachusetts's power comes primarily from natural gas, coal, and oil. That money goes away from the island to OPEC, and strip mining,” says Mr. Andre. “Vineyard Power's goal is to transition the island away from a fossil fuel based energy economy to a renewable energy economy, first through solar and then through large-scale offshore wind, then later through biomass.” This is another “future story.” But, the work done now to finance, design and build early models is important. Vineyard Power’s goal is to become a public utility. They would like to produce 75% of the island's energy needs locally, through renewable energy, while keeping money, jobs, and control in the island community. “These could happen at the airport, or the High School. We’d like to get to 5 megawatts of island solar energy generation in three years. We’ve built this one, now let’s see.”
In 2003 Steve Bernier, owner of Cronig's Markets, installed a solar array on the porch of Healthy Additions as a demonstration for the Vineyard Energy Project. As with the new array in the parking lot, part of that collaboration was to raise awareness of solar energy. “I'm doing this because I'm conscious of fossil fuel depletion,” says Mr. Bernier. “We're tearing down mountains in Appalachia to dig coal, to create energy, to transport food. We have to do something about the fact that all the engines on this planet run on fossil fuel. This gives us a platform to experiment,” Mr. Bernier says. “We have a beautiful community. We are blessed. I just hope we are resilient enough to create shifts in our thinking. I think it's better if we do this in our front yard, where we can all see it and feel it and talk about it.”
The structural steel installation at Cronig’s is designed in part to inspire other businesses and individuals to move towards solar power. It was also designed and built by South Mountain Company, known more for wood and architecture than for steel and engineering. The initiative at Cronig’s “is about energy, cars and people. People can now drive to the store, park in a shady place, and charge their electric vehicles while they shop," says John Abrams, President of South Mountain Company. "Most of all, it's about appropriate land use. Parking lots are plentiful, and they consist of disturbed real estate used only for the temporary storage of vehicles. Now we can make them into renewable energy power plants rather than using valuable habitat, woodlands, or agricultural land for this purpose. With Vineyard Power, instead of ‘them’ (the off-island utility) it’s 'us' (our local ratepayer-owned cooperative). "Vineyard Power is bringing banks, investors, solar designers and businesses together to cooperatively imagine and complete innovative solar systems,” says Abrams. "For South Mountain, these projects, and our new ability to provide solar leases to residential and commercial customers, are expanding our business beyond our traditional areas of interest and expertise. This is the first parking lot canopy project in New England and the Aquinnah landfill project is one of the first on a capped landfill in Massachusetts. We're constantly learning and taking this in new directions."
So what happens when people drive home from the store? The Cronig's array is a 210 kilowatt (kW) photovoltaic installation, but it can take as little as 5kW to power a single family home. South Mountain company also built a group of energy efficient houses on Eliakim's Way in West Tisbury. Some residents of Eliakim's Way, like Matt Coffey and his family, have attained zero net energy use – over the course of the year, their solar panels provide enough energy to power the whole house. Even those who still pay the electric company appreciate the combined benefits of solar power and efficiency. “All of our utilities are electric,” says Madeleine Ezanno. “It doesn't take a lot to keep the house warm. Our houses have lots of light and they're all south-facing.” With three adults and a teenager in the house, they use plenty of hot water, but despite not trying too hard to save energy, their bills are relatively low. “I'd love it if one day we could not be reliant on N-Star,” Ms. Ezanno says. Although they rely on the power system, that system also benefits from the contribution these households make. Home solar panels help create a reciprocal relationship between homeowners and energy suppliers, rather than a world in which consumers are entirely dependent on industrial power. Through our homes we can understand our relationship to fossil fuels and to resilient, renewable- and low-energy systems.
Solar is a small part of the energy mix in this country. In 2011, solar energy production in the U.S. accounted for less than one percent of the total energy produced. Coal produced 42 percent. Even so, solar power generation is happening here. Innovative models are emerging and enterprising. Forward thinking people are imagining and collaboratively implementing new solar systems. Soon, it will be possible to imagine a solar array on every roof and to actually see multipurpose farm land with solar arrays shading lettuce fields. With these initiatives we could imagine even larger, well-financed initiatives on state land with solar generators producing renewable, grid-tied power we all can benefit from and own. We could piece together our very own power utility. Because of solar’s emergence as a close-to-home power source, within the next decade we could cash in on Edison’s hundred and thirty year bet on sun and solar and realize our own form of energy independence.
Energy Note: “The energy in the photons that strike the earth each hour is roughly the equivalent to the total energy, from all sources, that humans use in a year.” Source: Owen, David. "The Artificial Leaf
." New Yorker 14 May 2012: 68-74.
1. US Energy Information Administration — http://126.96.36.199/energy_in_brief/role_coal
2. US Energy Information Administration — http://188.8.131.52/electricity/monthly/epm_
3. Amory Lovins; Reinventing Fire, Chelsea Green, October 2011 — Humans started burning fossil fuels at a recognizable scale in the mid-to-late 1800s, and have consumed roughly one-third of the planet’s technically and economically recoverable stock of fossil fuels. Half of this consumption has occurred since 1985. Projections from resource experts, although quite approximate, suggest that we are approaching peak consumption for oil (some assert the peak has already passed). Perhaps more surprising, projections also indicate that peak coal may be decades off, not a century or more, since much of the coal resource now looks too costly to recover. — http://www.rmi.org/RFGraph-Fossil_fuels_global_pro-
4. Andrew Woodruff a local farmer has leased land to Bill Bennett, who is, among other things a local, small scale energy developer.