Solar promise

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The average Martha’s Vineyard resident pays attention to electricity when the power goes out or when the monthly bill arrives. For many, the specific source of the energy that powers their computers, cooks their food, and lights their homes is not as important as the fact that the electricity turns on when they hit the switch — but that is changing.

Vineyard Power Cooperative, a West Tisbury–based energy cooperative, now claims a membership base of more than 1,300 individual and business members. The nonprofit has been active in erecting municipal and private solar arrays, and has teamed up with OffshoreMW to develop a wind farm on leased federal waters 12 miles south of the Vineyard.

“Our mission, as a 21st century energy cooperative, is to produce electricity from local, renewable resources while advocating for and keeping the benefits within our Island community,” Vineyard Power states on its website.

They are not the only players interested in the energy potential of nearby natural resources. Last week, representatives of Danish Oil and Natural Gas (DONG), one of the leading energy groups in Northern Europe, visited the Island to speak about the company’s plans to develop a wind farm adjacent to the OffshoreMW site that could potentially supply up to 1,000 megawatts of power, providing electricity to 500,000 homes. It’s a project, North American manager Thomas Brostrom told The Times, that would consume four years to permit — a time frame that belies the nation’s stated effort to develop offshore wind.

On a smaller scale, Island homeowners, businesses, and municipalities are increasingly turning to solar power — from small rooftop residential arrays to projects measured in acres — to tap into the drive for renewable energy.

The complex web of financial incentives that now supports solar growth is at the heart of a legislative battle taking place on Beacon Hill, as the House and Senate battle behind closed doors over the details of a comprehensive energy bill that will set state policy with respect to solar, wind, and hydroelectric power.

One aspect of the debate is the cost borne by all ratepayers and taxpayers to subsidize solar power, and the cost of those subsidies.

Writing in CommonWealth Magazine, Ed White, vice president for new energy solutions at National Grid, said utilities aren’t afraid of solar: “The simple truth is that Massachusetts customers pay twice as much for solar as customers in other states where we operate.” He said Massachusetts customers pay 45 cents per kilowatt-hour for solar power, compared with 17 to 18 cents per kilowatt-hour in New York State.

In a response in CommonWealth, “Solar isn’t the cause of high electricity prices,” Fred Unger, president of Heartwood Group, a clean energy development group, said, “In fact, it isn’t net metering or the way we compensate solar generators, but the inadvisable way that we compensate utilities that is the primary cause of our escalating electricity bills.”

In recent years, Vineyarders have embraced solar power. Solar arrays have popped up on landfills, in backyards, and in fields carved out of woodlands. In 2016, several new projects entered the local and regional permitting pipeline.

In a private initiative, Steve Bernier, owner of Cronig’s Markets, plans to install an array of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels that will include roof panels and vehicle canopies at his State Road West Tisbury property, which includes Up-Island Cronig’s and a nearby retail building that houses the West Tisbury Post Office.

The canopy-style solar panels will be similar in appearance to three sets of canopy-style solar panels installed in 2012 at Mr. Bernier’s Vineyard Haven market. The West Tisbury project is expected to begin this spring, and has faced only local review.

The nonprofit Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society has teamed up with electrical contractor Bill Bennett of Bennett Electric to break ground this spring on a 249-kilowatt ground-mounted solar array project, covering close to two acres of Ag Society land adjacent to the Polly Hill Arboretum off State Road in West Tisbury. The removal of trees that had acted as a natural buffer was a cause of concern to Polly Hill leaders.

The Oak Bluffs Water District has contracted with Boston-based BlueWave Capital to install a three-megawatt, four-acre solar array on a 45-acre parcel which contains three wells in the Lagoon Pond Watershed. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) is reviewing the project as a development of regional impact (DRI).

And Bennett Electric has submitted plans to the MVC for a two-acre solar array to be constructed on the 50-acre Norton Farm in Oak Bluffs. The proposed solar array will consist of 2,040 solar panels, and is projected to produce 650 kilowatts of electricity. The solar array would be installed on a parcel most recently used to grow potatoes and eggplant.

Amid the debate, it is clear that Massachusetts residents favor clean-source power: wind-, water-, and solar-generated electrons are preferable to those that come from generators powered with oil, natural gas, and nuclear reactions. At the same time, moving forward, ratepayers have a right to expect efficiencies for their subsidies and a permitting process that takes aesthetic and resource considerations into account.

Questions need to be asked and answered. Why give up good farmland, as Edgartown did at Katama Farm in 2013, for a solar array? Why construct a solar array over our water wells? Black solar panels on aluminum frames on a landfill may not much matter, but what about in an open field visible from the road? The promise of solar power should not blind us to other considerations when siting solar arrays, including the need for a comprehensive Island-wide energy plan.