Island Architect Wins Big Grant to Promote Use of Solar Energy


If global warming is a subject that fails to grab you, or feels too distant to be real, the next time you eat pancakes or French toast, consider the source of your maple syrup.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, in the 1930s the maple sugar industry was centered in Virginia. In the 1950s the industry was centered in New England. Today it is centered in Canada.

"I think we are all kidding ourselves if we don't care about global warming, especially on Martha's Vineyard," said Kate Warner, a West Tisbury architect. Ms. Warner has taken her own concerns about global warming and translated them into action.

Her one-woman company, Under the Sun, recently landed a $50,000 federal grant to promote the use of solar energy on the Vineyard in the next year. The grant is from the U.S. Department of Energy's Million Solar Roofs program, dedicated to promoting the use of sustainable energy around the country. Ms. Warner was one of only five other applicants in New England to receive the grant; the other recipients were the state of Rhode Island, the state of Vermont, the city of Newton and the city of Boston through Solar Boston.

The grant money will be used to promote awareness about solar energy on the Vineyard over the next 12 months. Among other things, Ms. Warner has made a commitment to develop 500 solar roofs on the Vineyard by the year 2010. In October she will bring the Union of Concerned Scientists to the Island to speak about global warming. She plans to develop a community energy profile and plan for the Vineyard, with help from the Cape Light Compact, which will gather energy data for the Cape and Islands under a separate grant from the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust.

"Climate change, growing population and demand for energy threaten the economy of Martha's Vineyard and its way of life," declared a recent press release about Ms. Warner's grant.

Her commitment to developing more solar energy use on the Vineyard is straightforward and real, both at work and at home. An architect who has worked on the Vineyard since 1987, she decided about five years ago to restrict her professional work to clients who agree to use some kind of solar energy in their project. "I want clients who are willing to give something back to the earth in return for the privilege of building a house here," she said. Ms. Warner includes a solar energy agreement in every contract with a client. Sometimes her commitment comes at the expense of her own livelihood - in January she was fired from a large job when the client decided to back out of the solar energy agreement.

Since 1998, she has designed 12 solar energy systems on the Vineyard, and a 13th system goes in this year. Her work ranges from a charming, shingled all-solar summer cottage at Cape Pogue on Chappaquiddick, to her own traditional New England-style homestead in West Tisbury, where solar panels heat nearly all of her hot water and generate most of her own electricity. At Ms. Warner's house, once her electricity needs are met, the electric meter spins backwards, feeding electricity into the NSTAR power grid and generating a credit that results in a monthly electric bill of about three dollars.

She also drives a hybrid electric car.

Ms. Warner said she decided to apply for the Million Solar Roofs grant earlier this year after a conversation with her sister about her commitment to do concrete work to help the environment. Her sister's advice: Do some networking and think about applying for a grant.

Ms. Warner attended a conference in Boston that was convened to discuss renewable energy and waste-to-energy issues. She overslept and missed the 6 a.m. ferry, and got to the conference a little late in the middle of a tedious discussion about protecting the economic interests of the waste-to-energy industry.

But later on, a woman who was a spokesman for Solar Boston spoke and got Ms. Warner's attention. She later contacted the woman, who told her about the Million Solar Roofs project.

The grant application included a tangle of government requirements that had little relevance for a sole proprietor rural architect. Her sister, who has experience in writing grants, was blunt about the outlook: A $50,000 government grant was hard to get and involved miles of paperwork. But with help from her sister, Ms. Warner plowed through the red tape and completed the application.

It was also a time when all her years of committee work and attending meetings paid off. In order to complete the grant, Ms. Warner needed a regional stamp of approval and some partners. She enlisted the help of the Cape Light Compact, the Martha's Vineyard Commission, NSTAR, the Cape and Islands Self Reliance Corporation and Mirant New England, a new power supplier for the region.

"Suddenly all the years I had spent going to millions of meetings finally fell into place," she said.

Ms. Warner has been coming to the Vineyard all her life. She began working as an architect in New York in 1985. In 1987 she moved to the Vineyard and began to work for West Tisbury architect Ben Moore. In 1991 she went out on her own. Along the way she was always interested in energy issues, and she served as a member of the refuse district committee. Several years ago she designed a home on the Vineyard using recycled materials.

Concern about the use of renewable energy on the Vineyard is not new - in the 1970s the Vineyard Energy Resource Group (ERG) was actively devoted to promoting the use of solar energy. The group formed partly in response to the energy crisis that had gripped the nation. But with the advent of the 1980s and economic prosperity, the ERG faded out of existence. Today on the Vineyard, energy awareness is hardly de rigeur, and the narrow Island roads are clogged with gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles.

"Someone said that the 1990s is a time in history when the cars on the road are bigger and less efficient than the cars in the landfill," Ms. Warner said.

She said there have been many advances in recent years in the technology associated with solar electric panels, although ironically, the vast majority of homeowners today are uneducated about solar energy.

"What I plan to do is to try these technologies out myself before I try them on other people - and at the same time I will reduce my own footprint," Ms. Warner said.

With the announcement about the Million Solar Roofs grant, Ms. Warner encourages anyone with an existing solar system on the Vineyard to contact her at Under the Sun, so the system can be counted toward the goal of 500. She also held a women's solar potluck gathering at her home in July, and plans to hold another one in September.

"There is nothing that means more to me than the Vineyard. I just want other people to have it in the future, too," she said, concluding: "We are a unique community, and there are a lot of educated people who chose this place to be their home. Now we have an opportunity to do something that can make a difference. We are a definable geographic entity, and we can be a model for other communities."