Vineyard Power, membership strengthened, looks ahead

Vineyard Power, membership strengthened, looks ahead

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Launched by the Vineyard Energy Project in 2008, and officially incorporated Nov. 19, 2009, Vineyard Power (VP) plans to obtain permits to construct wind turbines in state and federal waters. Chairman of the VP directors Paul Pimentel told a group at VP’s first meeting last February that its goal is to create stable minimum electricity rates for about 10,000 Vineyarders, who will own the power company.

There were about 300 members of VP in February, and there are now almost 1,000. Though VP does not yet deliver any electricity, membership in VP gets owners in on the ground floor and gives them a voice in the organization’s critical decisions about local power generation.

Charter members could join for $50, but the cost of joining was always planned to increase incrementally. The longer one waits to get on board, the more it costs. Membership is now at $150, but a $5,000 grant from an anonymous donor allows VP to offer a limited number of new memberships at $100. There are about 60 left. The grant also allows persons to give memberships at the $100 price, a program VP is calling “the gift of power.”

Progress report

During its first year, VP has prepared to form a limited liability corporation (LLC) to apply for permits and eventually build wind turbines to generate electricity. VP budgeted $267,000 for this engineering and legal work, but has so far spent far less, in part because less money than projected has been collected in memberships. But much of the engineering has been done by VP board members (notably Mr. Pimentel) and the structures and organization are not yet at the phase where lawyers will be needed.

Mr. Pimentel stressed that no location has yet been selected for permit application, and the final decision will be made by the VP members, but he conceded that political activity at the state and federal level suggest that an area between Nomans Land, Block Island, and Cuttyhunk seems to be a likely candidate.

According to executive administrator Eric Pekor, VP also plans to generate solar power at members’ homes or at host sites around the Island. Massachusetts has made incentives available for photovoltaic (PV) power generation (called renewable energy credits), which for as long as they last will make PV power generation cheaper than wind power. In the next three or four months, VP will form a LLC to enable its members to form PV power generation units at members’ homes or at host sites such as farms or any other non-municipal locations. Although the main thrust of VP’s energy has been wind power, setting up a LLC for solar power will enable VP to test its legal and engineering structures on a smaller scale in preparation for future wind generation. The financial benefits from wind power to members are still far down the road, but solar power generation may provide immediate benefits.

The smart grid

VP has received a grant of $750,000 to study a method for keeping on the Island the energy VP will produce.

The structure is called a “smart grid.” When the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, users of electricity on Martha’s Vineyard will still need to light and heat their homes, pump water from wells, and heat hot water. Currently, because there is no cost-effective way of storing electricity in batteries, Vineyarders who use renewable energy at those times buy electricity from NSTAR (“the grid”). When the solar array on the roof produces more energy than the homeowner needs, power is sold back to the grid. NSTAR is now required to buy excess energy, but there may come a day when power companies won’t have to.

In the future, when the bulk of the Island’s energy needs are provided by VP, a local “smart grid” will be connected (via an internet connection) to every member’s home — at a level the owner approves — to regulate electricity consumption. The adjustments will be small, according to Mr. Pimentel, and nearly imperceptible.

For example if electricity supply is lower than demand in a particular hour, the smart grid will instruct the water heater to allow the tank temperature to drop a few degrees below the usual setting. When supply exceeds demand, the water heater may add a few degrees and store energy as hot water. The same principle could be applied to the water pressure in the well tank or any other appropriate power usage.

At a future time, when nearly every VP member will have an electric car connected for charging to his household power supply, the smart grid may actually draw a fraction of the electricity stored in the car batteries to supply the smart grid during low production periods.

The era of electric cars and local large-scale power production may be twenty years in the future, or may be nearer, but VP is already getting ready.