Wind, tides and sun are intense subjects for discussion on the Island these days and it’s not all talk about the weather. Alternative energy projects are under way on so many fronts, both private and public, that it is sometimes hard to keep track of them all. But the Vineyard is moving ahead on three projects independently to generate electricity for its own needs, beginning with wind farms.
The deadline for lease bids on a wide swath of the Atlantic ocean south and west of the Island was extended by a month this week following a vocal meeting between state and federal officials and Island fishermen last Thursday. And as the deadline nears, the fledgling Vineyard energy cooperative finds itself pitted against large-scale commercial wind developers. It’s a difficult position, said Vineyard Power director Richard Andre, who now has until the end of March to apply for a plot on the continental shelf. He is urging co-op members and the public at large to pressure the government to give community organizations a seat at the table when it comes time to bid on the 25 lease blocks south of the Vineyard.
“Right now the Feds have not determined how they will distinguish between, let’s say, little Vineyard Power and, let’s say, a company that’s backed by a very large private equity firm that has a lot of money,” Mr. Andre said on Thursday.
He said the government could pursue its traditional “bonus bid” auction process that rewards high bidders, in which case Vineyard Power would be likely shut out, or pursue what is called a “multifactoral process” where community ownership, community benefits and impacts to the local economy would be balanced against a simple monetary bid. The Vineyard Power Web site invites readers to cut and paste a letter in support of the more inclusive process and send it to the federal government. With wind development very near, Mr. Andre said it is time for the Island to rally.
“It’s not this binary discussion anymore about pro-wind, anti-wind,” Mr. Andre said. “If it’s coming why should we not benefit from this? Why should we not get the jobs? Why should we not get the stable energy prices?”
And while the wind farm plans move ahead, another plan is moving forward in Edgartown to harness the power of the tides.
Earlier this month the town of Edgartown filed a notice of intent to file a license application for a pilot tidal energy project in Muskeget Channel. The plan calls for obtaining funding from state, federal and private grants. For the past three years the town, with the help of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, has been involved in a feasibility study of the area that includes measuring currents. This winter the results have been analyzed in preparation for an application to the federal energy regulatory commission. If the application is successful, the next step is installing an underwater turbine of sorts to capture the power of the rushing water.
“The technology is still in the early development stage,” said Kitt Johnson, who is on the Edgartown energy committee. “But when the dust finally settles we stand to be the recipient of a nice little electric generation system out there that, frankly, was paid for by other people.”
He said the success of a full-scale project will depend on the town’s enthusiasm and the success of the pilot, and even if everything goes as planned it could still be more than a decade before the tides run a lightbulb on the Vineyard.
There is also more than one solar project underway, including a joint project between Edgartown and Tisbury in conjunction with the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative, an offshoot of the Cape Light Compact. That project involves building a large array of solar panels over six acres on town-owned land at Katama Farm. Still far from being a done deal, the complicated project involves a lease of land from the town to the electric cooperative, which in turn will lease the property to a private contractor who will bear the cost of building the project. There are still many legal details to complete before bids can be awarded. But Mr. Johnson remains upbeat about the prospects.
“The great thing about this is it’s structured to be a fixed price over the next 20 years . . . We’re not just interested in renewable energy because it’s renewable energy, this has to be a long-term benefit to the town. Even at today’s rates the prices that we’re looking at would save the town half its electric bill,” he said.
Meanwhile, Vineyard power has launched its own solar initiative and hopes to begin construction this summer on at least one project. Through a combination of large commercial projects and smaller residential projects, the cooperative hopes to generate up to a megawatt of solar power. This compares to their plan to generate more than 40 megawatts of electricity — enough to power the entire Island — from 10 offshore wind turbines.
But Mr. Andre said it is important for members to have an immediate return on their membership which the solar project allows them to do. The cooperative’s wind project is expected to take at least five years to develop.
“We’re not just wind developers,” he said. “We want to do a mix of renewable projects as long as it makes economic sense to our members, which solar does.”