Cronig’s solar canopy is plugged in

Chairman of the VPC board, Paul Pimentel, plugs his new Nissan Leaf into one of the four electric car charging stations under the new Cronig's solar canopy. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

A crowd of about 40 gathered in the Cronig’s Market parking lot in Vineyard Haven Friday morning to mark the official “flipping of the switch” on the first phase of the Vineyard Power Cooperative’s (VP) solar canopy project at Cronig’s Market. The two parallel canopies, designed to produce 64 Kw of electricity each, cover the side parking lot of the grocery store. The project’s second phase will add one 83 Kw canopy over part of Cronig’s front parking lot.

Representatives and employees of the businesses involved in the approximately $1 million dollar project made up most of the crowd. Project leaders took turns praising the solar canopies.

Vineyard Power president Richard Andre described the projects his organization is pursuing, including a solar array at the Aquinnah landfill. He detailed the cooperative’s plans to help decrease the Vineyard’s dependence on fossil fuels through the development of windmills as well as solar arrays. He thanked the cooperative’s members and those private individuals who helped finance the project, along with the Edgartown National Bank and the companies involved in the project, and he pointed out that local labor worked on the project.

Cronig’s Market leases the parking lot space to VP. Steve Bernier, Cronig’s owner, said he is pleased to be involved in the “first Island project of its kind.” He said the canopy project represents a “paradigm shift” that will have a dramatic effect within 20 to 30 years.

He echoed Mr. Andre’s comments about wanting to see similar projects cover public parking spaces at the Regional High School, the YMCA, and the Park and Ride lot. Mr. Bernier thanked VP for the opportunity to help develop an addition to the Island’s energy supply and to address global warming in a productive way.

John Abrams, president of South Mountain Company, builder of the project, described the project as a great example of “thinking globally and acting locally.”

Mr. Abrams said that the 4,000 square miles of parking lots in the United States could, if covered with similar solar canopies, produce 50 percent of the country’s electrical needs. He added the airport and Steamship Authorities parking lots to the list of possible solar canopy project sites on the Island. The Cronig’s project he said, is “a great investment in tomorrow, with returns today.”

Massachusetts’ state senator Dan Wolf, the founding owner of Cape Air and long-time supporter of solar power, attended the event. He smiled and said Cape Air does not have any electric planes – yet.

Senator Wolf said the solar canopy would become the “new normal” for Vineyard children. He said he is fully committed to searching for local models of energy generation and said “listening to the voices of the community will lead us to a brighter future.”

Paul Pimentel, chairman of the board of VP, standing next to his two-month-old all-electric Nissan Leaf automobile, talked about the advantages of owning and operating an all-electric car on the Vineyard. He said there are real savings in fuel costs over burning gasoline.

Mr. Pimental expects to save $4,500 in seven years over driving an internal combustion car, including the cost of new batteries. He said that his car will emit no CO2 and that a comparable gasoline car would emit 50 tons of CO2 in seven years.

He then plugged his car into one of the four charging stations that are available beneath the Cronig’s canopies. The stations allow customers to recharge their cars free while shopping at Cronig’s. He got a good laugh from the crowd when he pointed out that the charging stations are an incentive to shop longer.

VP announced the Cronig’s canopy project in an email sent to members on January 11, this year. There was little opposition to the plan. Construction began on April 4.

A lifetime ownership stake in Vineyard Power is open to the public at fees that ranged from an initial one-time fee of $50. The membership fee is now $150, and increases quarterly until 2016, when it will be $950. There are now 1,251 members.

The VP website states that the economic benefits of cooperative membership begin with stabilized electricity prices by 2016 and then significantly lower prices after the initial financing period.

The completed canopy project is expected to produce 25 per cent of Cronig’s power needs, equal to the combined usage of about 35 average Vineyard homes, according to VP. Cronig’s Market leases the canopy space to VP and has an option to buy the canopy in 10 years.

Financing the project

Canopy designer Laurence Mackler agrees that it will be some time before the economy of scale brings the cost of installing wind and solar projects to an affordable level without government support. Mr. Mackler said there are only a handful of states where a project like the Cronig’s canopy project would be economically feasible, and Massachusetts is one of them because of state provided incentives.

There are federal incentives in the form of tax credits in the range of 30 percent for the installation of alternative energy projects. The subsidies accrue to the owner of the project, VP, and by extension to the investors.

Massachusetts is one of only six states that offers what are known as active solar renewable energy credits (SREC).

According to an article on the Renewable Energy World website, an industry site, the SREC “currently provide a six percent payback on solar projects, that number is expected to be 15 percent by 2020. This incentive is expected to bring over 300,000 kW of solar generation to Massachusetts by 2014. In addition, solar jobs in the state of Massachusetts have already tripled from 2007 to 2010.”

The combination of the federal tax credits and the SREC makes a project like the Cronig’s solar array possible, according to Mr. Mackler. He said that if he had access to the same credits that the oil industry has we could be an energy independent country in a relatively short time.

VP’s Richard Andre was unwilling to provide financial details on the Cronig’s project, other than that the total cost of the project is around $1.1 million. He did say that the financial credits for the electricity generated by the panels would go to Cronig’s, which would then write a check to VP for the same amount, essentially buying the power generated from VP.

Canopy designer Laurence Mackler

The solar canopies over the Cronig’s parking lot were the brainchild of designer, architect, solar power advocate, and former Vineyard resident Laurence Mackler. He returned to the Island last week to see the canopies his company, Solaire Generation, designed and built.

Solaire Generation, based in New York, designs, manufactures, and installs solar parking structures and systems. Solaire Generation is now building the largest solar carport in the United States for Rutgers University and built the currently largest corporate solar carport for Dow Jones. Solaire manufactured the Cronig’s canopies.

Mr. Mackler first visited the Island for one weekend as an 18-year-old. Years later, after graduating from Dartmouth College, where he went because they had a great woodworking shop, and after four years designing and making furniture in New York City, and four years at Harvard, Mr. Mackler moved to the Vineyard in 1996. He was invited to the Island by an old Dartmouth friend, Beth Kostman, now an architect/interior designer with the South Mountain Company in West Tisbury. He had just earned a master’s degree in architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

On the Vineyard, Mr. Mackler interviewed with architect Mark Hutker and worked with him for a short while, then built houses. “I worked my butt off for two years and paid off all my school loans,” he said. He designed and built several houses, including Andre Previn’s music studio in West Tisbury.

Brian Cuff, Solaire Generation’s director of design and construction and a classmate of Mr. Mackler at Harvard, also lived and worked on the Vineyard and helped build Mr. Previn’s music library.

Mr. Mackler said he left the Island at that time because he was young and single, and New York had a lot more to offer. After a day and a half on the Vineyard this trip, he said, “I forgot how nice it is here. I will be back.”

He and his wife Elizabeth now have one son and another due in January. They live across the street from the tennis courts in Central Park in New York. He manages to get out early to play tennis a couple of times a week, even with a full work schedule.

One of his new designs is an American flag solar panel. He said he is open to most any design idea “as long as we produce clean energy and help save the environment. Designing buildings that don’t incorporate sustainable technology just doesn’t make sense. Buildings can’t just be beautiful. That’s an archaic and obsolete paradigm.

“We are very proud to see our patented solar canopy on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard. Although not the same in scale as our other projects, the Cronig’s project is very important to me and the Solaire team because it is in the public domain and on an Island that cares deeply about what’s built and the natural landscape.”

For more information on Solaire Generation go to