A sparsely furnished three-room building in West Tisbury marks the unassuming home of Vineyard Power. The organization has two full-time employees: Richard Andre and his assistant, Kerry Downing. All in all it’s a humble arrangement. There is nothing modest, however, about the organization’s ambition. Vineyard Power, the Island’s first energy cooperative, plans to raise and manage nearly $200 million in federal and private investments in wind power and make the Island energy independent within five years.
Energetic, sporty and fastidious, Mr. Andre looks the part of the intrepid start-up entrepreneur. The former chief executive officer of a food and pharmaceutical company in the Netherlands and before that a 15-year employee of British Petroleum knows how to manage a company and earned his stripes in the energy sector. When he moved to the Island four years ago he set to work building what at the time was an unprecedented energy-efficient home, known as a passive house, also building his own personal wind turbine. It wasn’t long before he became involved as a director on the board of the Vineyard Energy Project.
The Vineyard Energy Project was founded in 2003 by renewable energy advocate Kate Warner, a West Tisbury architect, to educate the public on everything from sustainable construction practices to solar panel demonstrations. When the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s Island Plan called for an electrical cooperative on the Vineyard that could stabilize and lower electric bills for its members while generating renewable energy, members of the Vineyard Energy Project saw an opportunity.
“We saw a lot of recommendations in the Island Plan and said why don’t we take ownership of these and implement them,” says Mr. Andre. After 18 months of work behind the scenes, consulting project managers from similar cooperatives around the globe and devising a workable model for the Vineyard, Vineyard Power was born in November. Since then it’s been a feverish scramble for members and investment dollars. Membership prices are skewed to encourage people to get in now: join today and it’s $50, wait four years and it’s $975. With 400 members already signed up, Mr. Andre says the sales pitch is working.
“The biggest thing for us is the amount of members we have,” he says. “As a community-based organization the more members we have the more credible we are when we’re going for leases against private developers.”
A membership buys a share in the cooperative, and, as shareholders, any profits the cooperative makes would return to them, rather than a third party utility.
The rest of the cooperative’s financing, though, is more complicated. With an estimated $172 million price tag for building 17 offshore wind turbines, membership dues alone will not foot Vineyard Power’s bill. The current plan calls for $82 million to come in the form of a USDA Rural Utilities Service loan, another $57 million from a private equity investor lured by lucrative tax credits, and another $33 million from the sale of renewable energy credits.
Before any of that however, Vineyard Power needs to raise $17 million in predevelopment financing for leasing, permitting, environmental studies and wind monitoring.
“We’ve just begun that process,” says Mr. Andre, “We’re just beginning to get out and meet investors.”
August will mark the first annual meeting of Vineyard Power, during which members will have an opportunity to amend bylaws, elect three new members to the nine-member board of directors and begin to develop criteria for where the location of the turbines.
“That’s why we’re really encouraging people to join because right now we’re getting to the process of making decisions on these things,” Mr. Andre says.
The idea of an energy cooperative may be new to the Vineyard, but it already has proven to be an effective model abroad. The most famous example paraded by renewable energy advocates is the island of Samso in Denmark, which gradually replaced all of the oil and fuel that was shipped to the island — at great expense to both the community and its carbon footprint — with renewable wind energy and biofuels. Delegates at the climate summit in Copenhagen had the opportunity to tour the island in December. A small, mostly agricultural community, Samso made the decision to go off the grid in 1997. In a 2008 New Yorker article Elizabeth Kolbert tracked its success.
“By 2001,” she wrote, “fossil-fuel use on Samso had been cut in half. By 2003, instead of importing electricity, the island was exporting it, and by 2005 it was producing from renewable sources more energy than it was using.”
Samso’s relation to the Vineyard is not merely one of resemblance. Suzanne Slarsky Dael is a consultant to Vineyard Power. She works for the Danish Ministry of Environment and has studied and worked with the island of Samso. Until this past January she lived on the Vineyard helping to get the cooperative off the ground. Mr. Andre says many of the lessons and best practices learned from Samso are now being applied at Vineyard Power. There are, however, important cultural and political gulfs that separate the two Islands.
“The Danish government is very involved in making these things happen. For us the whole regulatory issue and community awareness is a lot farther behind where it is in Europe. The Danish already had, as a culture and a society, bought into the benefits of renewable energy, so that was a fairly easy sell.”
And the models for Vineyard power are not confined to Europe. Vinalhaven, a rural summer colony in Penobscot Bay in Maine, completed work on three land-based wind turbines that will provide enough energy for the entire island in the summer and a surplus that will return benefits to cooperative members in the winter.
“It’s an island with a year-round population that has the same challenges that the year-round population has here in earning a sustainable living in a tough and expensive place to earn a living,” says Mr. Andre, who has been in touch with the Vinalhaven cooperative president George Baker. That project had no state permits, no contract for purchasing turbines and serious financial shortfalls just seven months before its completion, a testament to how quickly such a project can get off the ground.
Mr. Andre envisions a future on the Vineyard where the energy offshore is captured as efficiently as possible. Electric cars in particular fire his imagination.
“Can you think of a better place for them? It’s an Island, you can’t drive over 45 miles per hour. You just connect your car to your home and get the power from the wind,” he says.
In the end, he says, the most important thing is for Islanders to feel as if they have a voice in the fractious and sometimes polarizing battle over offshore wind.
“The whole Cape Wind controversy is that they’re going to build these 150 turbines out there and we’re all going to be impacted by them, but the benefit is perceived to be going elsewhere,” he says. “If we’re going to have turbines and be impacted by them we might as well benefit from them.”