Vineyard Houses Harness the Sun

Suzie Wasserman owns one of Music Street’s charmingly traditional homes in West Tisbury, but don’t for a minute think it’s a house locked in the past. Discretely screened by the shrubbery next to the house are state-of-the-art solar panels generating electricity. Since her home doesn’t have a south-facing roof, eight panels are mounted on the ground. Her system shows that even a vintage house can go solar.

“People assume there has to be new construction,” she says. “It’s very, very simple – they put up a rack, dug a trench for the wires. There was no retrofitting needed.”

Increasing numbers of Vineyard homeowners are climbing on board the solar-energy wagon. Suzie jumped on five years ago, when she saw an article about the work of West Tisbury architect Kate Warner, who is spearheading the movement to make the Island more energy self-sufficient.

Martha’s Vineyard may not solve the nation’s energy crisis single-handedly, but as a magnet for Islanders and vacationers from all over the United States and the world who cherish its unique environment, the Island could act as a lodestar for a nation ready to commit to renewable energy. Solar can make a significant difference in Island energy consumption.

“It’s a thrill to make your own power,” Kate says with characteristic understatement. “There are ways you can start being part of the solution.”

In 2003, Kate started the non-profit Vineyard Energy Project (VEP) and now devotes most of her time to it. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Million Solar Roofs Initiative inspired Kate to set a goal of 500 Vineyard solar homes by 2010. Ninety solar electric systems, and 72 more for solar hot water, were in place by the start of 2007, so the Island is well on its way to meeting the goal.

Chilmark’s Bill Bennett, a master electrician, got in on solar early, out of necessity. The King’s Highway property where he built a barn in 1991, a house in 1997, and finally his wife Beach’s indoor equestrian arena in 2002, was too remote for access to electricity.

“Solar’s not so complicated,” he explains. “Once you learn how to do one system, it’s pretty easy.” He has installed and now maintains well over a dozen systems across the Island through his company Bennett Solar. “It’s very scalable,” he says. “You can make them as big as they need to be for the size of
the house and its electrical demand.”

Solar systems come in a variety of forms. The simplest provide heat for swimming pools and hot water in homes. Others provide electricity for houses and are usually tied into the commercial electric grid to ensure continuous service.

Swimming pools

Heating water with the sun is not a new idea. Leonardo da Vinci devised a plan for solar hot water collection in the fifteenth century. Today the technology for heating swimming pools involves a network of tubing through which water circulates. For some Vineyarders, pools provide a way to test the waters
of locally generated energy.

“This was our first baby step,” says Edgartown’s Warren Adams, an international energy entrepreneur who has been heating his pool with solar since May 2006. A longtime interest in conservation and renewable energy led him in 2003 to build a “smart house,” where lights, thermostats, and other aspects of the home are all run by computer.

When he started work on his house five years ago, looking into solar energy sources was part of the plan, but Warren thought it was not yet practical economically to generate his electricity. He does believe anyone on Martha’s Vineyard who has a pool and southern exposure should invest in solar.
“We’re definitely considering expanding. It’s been a very easy first step,” Warren says.

Former BMW driver trainer Larry Schaeffer also has a solar-heated pool. After a back injury sidelined him ten years ago, he moved from New Jersey to Oak Bluffs with his wife Helene. Soon he was spending more money heating the pool he uses for physical therapy than his house – $5,000-plus in propane bills during one summer alone. In 2004, Schaeffer decided to stop being “an energy boor” and installed a system to heat the pool.

Solar hot water

Solar can also provide household hot water. The panels are connected to a holding tank, which is connected to a gas or electric backup. Depending on the amount of sunshine, one or both systems kick in. From May through October, Kate Warner relies almost entirely on solar-heated hot water. “The panels heat the water 120 to 130 degrees,” she says.

Suzanne Fenn and Bucky Burrows of Christiantown Road in West Tisbury also have solar hot water. Bucky is a fly fisherman who runs charters in the summer, and for twenty years he and Suzanne have made salsa and lemonade on Friday night and sold it at the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market on Saturday.
“We felt concerned about our energy use,” says Suzanne. When they decided to install the system, she and her husband took the budget route with their system, and Kate helped them find used panels.

The solar hot-water panels at Bruce and Sarah Nevin’s Chase Road home in Edgartown reflect a high-tech approach. With an expertise in environmental design, Bruce felt at home coming up with a plan for fitting panels into his recent, environmentally sensitive renovation. He decided on three 4-by-10-
foot panels instead of four 4-by-8 ones, because he says they fit better on the roofline of his addition – an energy-efficient polygon.

The Nevins’ solar panels represent one part of a three-stage heating system that includes geothermal heat conduction and a furnace. Thanks to the solar panels, Bruce estimates a savings of about $38,000 on propane in ten years, at current propane prices.

Solar electricity

Photovoltaic – solar electric – systems offer a far more serious commitment to renewable energy. Modern solar electric panels rely on the work of nineteenth-century French scientist Alexandre Becquerel, who discovered that substances like silicon particles generate direct-current (DC) power when exposed to sunlight.

A sophisticated little piece of machinery called an inverter converts DC power into alternating current (AC) for household use. Homeowners who install solar electric systems either tie into the existing commercial electric network (a.k.a. the grid) or choose to become entirely self-sufficient.    

“Most people go with grid-tied systems,” Kate Warner says. “They’re cheaper and much more efficient.” Grid-tied means a homeowner can still get electricity if the solar panels aren’t producing enough, and on sunnier days unused electricity goes back to the electric company, which pays for it.

On-Island news tends to travel best by word of mouth. Elizabeth Bayer’s son Nick, who manages his mother’s Clam Point property in West Tisbury, says
his family knew about Chilmark friend Alice Hall’s off-the-grid system. Then Nick’s mother and older sister saw solar panels at Chilmark Chocolates – a VEP demonstration site. They decided on the spot to get their own. Nick’s father Leo, who has since died, had doubts though.

“You look around the Island and say, ‘I’ve got to be environmentally responsible,’” Nick explains. “I laid a pretty good guilt trip on him.” Leo eventually relented, and the Bayers’ solar electric panels went up in March 2004.

Actors Mary Steenburgen and Ted Danson are also solar energy enthusiasts. “We are thrilled with our solar panels,” Mary says. “Kate helped us set them up on the roof of our pool house. They have been utterly dependable, and we have been inspired to put some on the roof of our California house. This is one way to save energy and join in the reduction of greenhouse gases.”

Once Vineyarders try one form of solar power, they may find themselves adding more. Larry Schaeffer liked his solar-heated pool so much that two years ago he added a rack of solar electric panels to generate electricity for his home – even though it meant cutting down some fifty trees on his wooded hillside property so the ground-mounted panels would have enough sun. Larry’s solar electric system has propane heat as well as electric baseboard backups for cloudy days when the panels aren’t producing enough electricity. On the days when they do, he has watched his electric meter run backward.

Unlike grid-tied solar electric, a stand-alone system makes the homeowner entirely independent. This kind of solar works best in situations where no power source is available, like Chappaquiddick and remote sections of the Vineyard.

The power generated by a stand-alone system is stored in a bank of batteries until the homeowner is ready to draw on it. Since no other source of electricity is used, this type of system needs a generator for backup on days when the sun is hiding behind clouds.

Electrician Bill Bennett’s aunt, Martha Moore, has a stand-alone system for her West Tisbury home on remote Middle Point. “I am the only year-round resident out here,” she explains. A rustic life without electricity was fine until tax rates began to go up. That’s when Martha began to rent her place in the summer.

Martha has a propane-fueled generator in case something goes wrong, and once a month she checks the water level in her twelve batteries – a caretaker does it in-season – refilling them with distilled water if necessary.

After nearly fifteen years with stand-alone solar electric systems, Martha’s nephew Bill joined the grid in 2005. It happened after neighbor Brian Mackey heard the Bennetts had no way to connect to the commercial grid. Brian invited Bill to install a pole and hook up through the Mackey property. Not only does Bill appreciate the electric company as a backup for his solar, but he sees his grid-tied system as supplying electricity for his neighbors.

“Chances are, Brian Mackey’s refrigerator is on, and John Morrell is running his air conditioner, so my extra electricity goes there,” he says, explaining that electric current goes to the nearest point of demand. “The best thing about it is none of my electricity is getting wasted.” Bill’s switch from stand-alone solar electric to grid-tied helps the Vineyard directly.

Powering the Vineyard

In recent years, the Island’s rate of electricity consumption has surpassed its population growth rate. With new construction averaging two hundred new houses a year, even a housing slump is unlikely to alter that pattern by much. The commercial electrical connection feeding the Island’s energy needs seems to grow more fragile every year. In summer, the Vineyard’s four underwater cables carry a near-capacity load, and the official backup system consists of five diesel generators, two of which are more than sixty years old.

Aquinnah selectman Jim Newman, himself a solar electric homeowner, last year addressed the issue head-on by developing a zoning bylaw, still pending, that would require all new homes in Aquinnah over a specific size to include renewable energy sources.

Last December Jim took the issue a step further and penned a nonbinding referendum proposal to support an Island-wide energy conservation District of Critical Planning Concern (DCPC), to regulate consumption and promote sources of renewable energy. Each of the Island’s six towns and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission would need to approve it, although the Commission is unlikely to act on it without a go-ahead from the local municipalities, according to senior planner Bill Veno. If such an energy conservation DCPC were adopted (it wouldn’t happen until Island towns reviewed it a second time), it could become the first such entity in Massachusetts.

The politics of the situation, with the Island’s traditional town/MVC rivalries, could get dicey too, when it comes to considering an Island-wide energy conservation DCPC plan requiring solar and other renewable energy sources. As of the beginning of the year, selectmen from many towns seemed skeptical about adopting broad-based policies requiring them.

“I’ve found it hard to get people interested in the global warming issue,” Kate Warner says, “because it’s too overwhelming, too depressing, and too long term.”

In terms of the Vineyard’s well-being, the need for local power sources is underscored by the Island’s increasing precariousness when it comes to electricity. Generating your own solar hot water or electricity supports the national “relocalization” movement – buying local food, products, and services. If people will get behind the idea of buying Island-grown veggies, solar can be next.

Solar shortcomings

No energy system is perfect, though, including solar. For one thing, inverters are fairly fragile pieces of equipment. Martha Moore has experienced lightning strikes close enough to zap her inverter. For another, most solar panels are made of glass, so if a tree falls on them, they can break. One May, Martha neglected to peg the metal stanchions supporting the panels; a typically fierce Vineyard storm flipped them over, and she lost one.

In winter, snow can cover the panels and prevent light absorption if not removed, and Larry Schaeffer had to hire exterminators after last year’s caterpillar infestation left his ground-mounted bank of panels blanketed with creepy crawlies.

And then there’s aesthetics. Some people consider solar panels eyesores. Builder Rick Anderson wasn’t crazy about the idea when Sue Holmes decided to include solar hot-water panels in the renovations he had underway last year at her West Tisbury home. But he went along with it.

“They’re like afterthoughts,” he says, not happy with the added-on look of solar panels. “I’m a traditionalist. It’s all about design, so let’s make it attractive.”

Solar technology is growing rapidly, though.

High-end solar panels that look like slate should eventually enter the market at more affordable prices. While still pricey, frameless glass panels and bendable ones also exist. As the technology develops, advances will make their way to the Vineyard.

Does it pay to go solar?

Federal and state tax credits (which apply to primary residences but not second homes) are making the initial investment in solar technology more palatable. Under the current program, the federal government offers homeowners a 30 percent tax credit of up to $2,000 for each solar system installed – electric and/or hot water. In addition, Massachusetts offers residents a 15 percent tax credit up to $1,000. For grid-tied solar electric systems, a $2 per watt subsidy is also available from the Renewable Energy Trust, which is funded through a charge on all electricity customers’ bills; this is administered by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. Despite these subsidies, investing in solar energy is not cheap. Costs vary by size and type of installation, but solar power does save money in the long run.

In July 2005, furniture maker Larry Hepler had sixteen panels installed at the Chilmark house he and his partner Alice Early call home. By that winter, they had cut their electric bill in half. In summer they pay nothing. Not bad, considering electric rates on-Island are double the Massachusetts average. Last summer, the couple even made $30 from electricity they sold back to the electric company.

Larry originally estimated payback for the investment to install solar panels at fifteen years, but with electricity rates sailing away like balloons in the wind, he says, “I’d be willing to bet it will be considerably less than that.” A true believer, he has even acquired an electric golf cart for tooling around the property – he can plug it into his solar-powered house to recharge on sunny days. He’s looking to buy a road-worthy electric car next.

Larry Schaeffer’s solar electric system in Oak Bluffs offers an example of how solar subsidies work. (His swimming pool was not eligible because pools are considered luxury items.) The federal incentive program in place at the time Larry installed his panels covered 40 percent of the $19,000 installation cost. After receiving a lump sum for half his rebate, all Larry had to do to earn the rest was report how much electricity he generated each month. Not bad for an investment that will end up saving him money, reduce the community’s reliance on off-Island electricity, and arguably increase the value of his home.

Kate Warner feels optimistic about the prospects for solar energy on the Vineyard. Her biggest challenge is to educate the general public about solar. VEP’s website, – with its user-friendly format, articles and links, facts about tax credits, and downloadable site survey form – aims to do just that.

Kate’s solar company, Under the Sun, has made it relatively easy for Vineyarders to install solar energy systems. “Kate is like a one-woman show,” says Jim Newman’s wife Kathy about Kate’s work at their Aquinnah home. “She did everything – sited the panels, ordered them, arranged for the installation.” The Newmans generate 3,000 kilowatt-hours a year, about half their needs. At some point, they want to install hot-water panels as well.

Kate says, “You need electricians who are licensed and insured.” Electrician Bill Bennett’s clients are among the lucky few, because they can rely on him to tweak their systems if necessary. Kate says, “We don’t have enough subcontractors; there’s just too much work out there.” VEP tries to address the Island’s shortage of trained solar technicians by offering workshops on code regulations and other aspects of solar energy. But VEP lives hand to mouth from one grant to the next, and despite the good it does – energy fairs, school programs, fourteen demonstration sites scattered around the Island –
it remains perpetually underfunded.

Increasing numbers of brownouts, blackouts, and electrical equipment failures may change any reluctance on-Island to abandon energy-greedy habits. Meanwhile, solar energy appeals as a relatively easy way to make a difference at a local, very personal level. And nothing could be closer to the heart of
what drives the Vineyard.