Vineyarders will enjoy arguing for many more years about when the world will run out of oil, about the causes and effects of climate change, about the safety of nuclear power and about the politics of our dependence on imported fuel. We like to argue. But increasingly, many of us are coming around to the idea of a reliable energy future for Martha’s Vineyard based on higher efficiency and local generation of energy primarily from wind. The Island Plan expects that remarkable transition from fossil fuels to be achieved within 40 years.
In the meantime, we aren’t standing still. Edgartown is exploring a tidal power project. Aquinnah has proposed an Energy District of Community Planning Concern. The Vineyard Energy Project is hiring an engineer to help us implement energy efficiency projects. Towns and individuals have embarked on a variety of renewable projects. All big steps in the right direction but only the first of many we must take to meet the Island Plan targets.
Power from wind is a well-established technology. There are 16,800 megawatts (MW) of wind capacity in the U.S. today, supplying about 1 per cent of our total demand. We added 5,200 MW of new, utility-scale wind capacity in 2007, a growth rate of 45 per cent. Winds around here are pretty steady but they don’t blow all the time, so wind energy needs a dance partner, a complementary mix of power sources and users to ensure that the supply is there when we need 50 MW on a calm summer day and that the demand is there when a fresh breeze is generating more than we need. Our partner is the Independent System Operator in Westborough, Mass., otherwise known as the grid.
Ditley Engel, chief executive of Vestas Wind Systems, a Danish firm with two wind turbines in Hull, Mass. and another 35,000 in operation around the world, observes, “The U.S. has fantastic wind resources. If it were oil, you would drill, drill and drill!”
Martha’s Vineyard is blessed with some of the best wind in the U.S. You might say we are the Saudi Arabia of wind energy. That abundance and the maturity of the technology make development economically attractive and virtually inevitable. We are having a big argument now about where the first such large scale development should go but even Cape Wind’s staunchest opponents want us to relocate, not abandon, the project. The experimental floating turbines proposed last week by Blue H, apparently an affiliate of a Dutch developer, is just the next project in line.
Hull didn’t have as much wind potential when they erected their first turbine in 2001 but they did have a municipal utility to do it. They have since erected a second, larger turbine and will soon put up an offshore wind farm to offset the town’s entire load and earn extra revenue from excess generation. Atlantic Cape Fisheries, a cooperative of Cape May commercial fishermen, acknowledging the inevitable, is developing a 74 MW offshore wind farm in New Jersey.
Hull is a resort community where ocean views are an asset and the New Jersey fishermen worry about what turbines will do to their livelihood. What’s made it palatable for them is having a balanced stake in the outcome of development. For Hull residents and the New Jersey fishermen, direct economic benefits will accrue in proportion to their cost and risk. That is in stark contrast to a private developer who uses the landscape or seascape to extract the energy at lowest cost to maximize its profit. The developer deserves that reward for risking its investment but adjacent communities who bear the “external costs” of such a project realize little of the gain.
We have an opportunity to secure for ourselves affordable energy, some good paying jobs, a smaller carbon footprint and a measure of self-reliance. Large-scale offshore wind can produce power for about what we pay NStar now for the energy part of our bill and much less than we will be paying soon enough. Wind isn’t our only local renewable source but it is by far the least expensive. The proceeds from exporting $20 million in net excess power to the off-Island grid means Islanders would be paying 13 cents when mainland rates soar to 30 cents a kilowatt-hour by 2050. Power sales would also pay for maintenance and repair performed by well-paid, skilled Vineyarders operating out of our ports and leveraging our maritime support infrastructure in a new $10 million per year industry. The Island Plan calculates if we meet their goals for efficiency and conversion to renewables by 2050, we will have reduced our carbon footprint on the planet by an astounding 90 per cent. And perhaps best of all for the cantankerous Yankees we seem to be, we will be ensuring an energy future for ourselves relatively free of outside control yet able to sustain the lifestyle we have today at a cost we can afford.
There are plenty of obstacles to gaining control of our energy future. We need a way to aggregate our buying power, attract capital, acquire expertise and execute our intent to generate energy responsibly. It would be very difficult to create a municipal utility like Hull’s but we could form a cooperative open to all Islanders and dedicated to generating renewable energy, an increasingly valuable commodity, for sale to NStar on Island — just as Cape Wind plans to do on the mainland. Electric cooperatives owned by their ratepayers and managed by elected directors are common in the Midwest. Help getting started in the form of USDA grants and expertise in community scale renewable generation is readily available. It is clearly working for cooperatives building a biodiesel plant in Greenfield, Mass., and a 10 MW wind farm near Toronto, Ontario. I think it would work even better for us.
Incorporating a broadly supported energy cooperative with a mandate to explore and develop sensible and responsible energy projects is a path upon which we should embark without delay.
Paul Pimentel is a resident of Edgartown, a professional engineer with 40 years experience in energy efficiency and renewable systems, senior vice president of NORESCO, a $240 million international energy services company and chairman of the board of the Vineyard Energy Project.