Five years ago, the leaders of our town energy committees came together to establish an all-Island energy committee to address the climate crisis. Focused on joint projects and sharing of best practices in furthering energy sustainability and resilience for our threatened Island home, this group, the Vineyard Sustainable Energy Committee, remains a key element of a now-flourishing energy community that includes Vineyard Power (established as a cooperative in 2009) and the MVC’s Climate Action Task Force (2019).
Much has been accomplished by these groups. All six of our towns are now part of the state’s Green Communities program, advancing energy efficiency and the use of sustainable energy and acquiring the needed grant money to achieve this. All six of our towns have adopted aspirational goals for fossil fuel elimination and increased renewable energy through near-identical warrant articles approved at individual town meetings. The town energy committees are developing long-term energy plans emphasizing electrification of transportation and building heating and cooling along with increased on-Island renewable electricity generation and storage. Vineyard Power has provided major assistance in getting Vineyard Wind, the nation’s first significant offshore wind farm, across the finish line, and in doing so is bringing jobs and financial benefits to the Island. Finally, the Climate Action Task Force has developed an effective partnership with Eversource, our electric utility, and published the Climate Action Plan with a broad set of contributors.
We are already seeing the impacts from these efforts. From a 2018 baseline, the Island’s fossil fuel use has declined by approximately 15%, while the Island’s CO2 emissions (from both fossil fuels and electricity) have declined by 18%. On-Island solar generation has increased by 38%.
Let’s take a moment to celebrate these accomplishments — but not more than a moment. If we need a reminder of what’s at stake, hurricanes Ian and Nicole have certainly provided that. Our 2030 and 2040 checkpoints to achieve our goals now seem imminent, rather than far in the future.
Now comes the hard part.
We are at a transition point in our efforts to address energy transformation and climate change. We (mostly) understand the challenges we face, but we need to develop detailed project plans and execute those plans with limited financial resources (and against substantial economic headwinds). Step 1 needs to be the prioritization of project portfolios in a way that delivers the biggest returns (in resilience and greenhouse gas reductions) for our efforts.
As a top-of-mind example, our schools are of major importance in moving forward with electrification, energy efficiency, and elimination of fossil fuels. At this point, we are at the very start of replacing or renovating all six schools on the Island. The Chilmark, Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and West Tisbury schools have HVAC and building envelope improvement projects at early stages. Work has begun on the new Tisbury School. Finally, the new Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School will presumably be all-electric and built to the most advanced building codes. Overall, these projects could easily require the Island to spend $250M or more over the next decade. And this represents only a portion of the public sector challenges — and there are the commercial and residential sectors to be addressed as well.
Our response to the climate crisis must include more than electrification of building heating and cooling, of course. Other elements include support for electric vehicles, ensuring that the supply of electric power is adequate for our needs, and deploying a larger amount of on-Island renewable generation for increased energy resilience for the future climate-changed world.
Electric vehicles have transitioned from an early-adopter phenomenon to the mainstream, judging by the wide variety of EVs that are now being sold and their growing presence on the road. While their impact on our electric grid is smaller than all-electric heating and cooling systems, recent work has shown that they can help lower peak power supply requirements. Within several years, the emergence of vehicle-to-grid capabilities also make EVs attractive as a resilience measure. Public EV charging infrastructure and repair services need to be developed.
Do we have an adequate electric power supply? For the completely electrified Island of 2040, no. The key here is the ability for our electric utility, Eversource, to handle the peak power needed by the Island — that is, to satisfy the highest demand for energy over the course of a year. Currently, four cables spanning Vineyard Sound from Falmouth to Vineyard Haven are barely adequate for today’s loads. Our energy community’s work with Eversource engineers over the past two years has changed their supply strategy, and they now have projects underway to add a fifth cable and replace an older cable (which has been operating at a derated level). We now believe that, once these new cables are brought online, the Island will have enough electricity supply capability to satisfy our needs for at least the next decade.
Finally, we also need to continue to grow our on-Island solar resources, as well as adding batteries for energy storage, both for peak power management and for resilience in the face of outages. For critical services as well as for backup energy for residences and other buildings, microgrid architectures that allow a building or several buildings to disconnect from a failed main grid and operate with local “distributed energy resources” (solar arrays, batteries, emergency generators) to provide power are a near-future step toward climate change resilience.
All of this is a tall order. Yes, now starts the hard part. But we can do this!
Robert Hannemann is chair of the Chilmark Energy Committee.