Aquinnah weighs sustainable energy options

The select board expressed difficulties that may exist for residents. 

Aquinnah climate and energy committee chair Bill Lake providing sustainable energy updates to the select board. — Eunki Seonwoo

Aquinnah will need more information before any sustainable energy options can be pursued. 

Aquinnah climate and energy committee chair Bill Lake brought updates to the board about sustainable energy during a Tuesday evening select board meeting. “There are two developments that I thought would be good to bring the select board up to date, because it may involve decisions that have to be made in the not-too-distant future,” Lake said. These were updates to the state building codes, and “federally supported planning projects.”

Aquinnah, and other Martha’s Vineyard towns, adopted the stretch code as a part of becoming a “green community.” Lake described the stretch code as “a tightened version of the building code, designed to make buildings more energy-efficient.” The code is meant for new construction or buildings undergoing major renovations. “Almost every town in the state has adopted the stretch code … 299 out of 351,” Lake said. 

There were some “major revisions” to the code that took effect this year, although some will be phased in over time, Lake said. 

One was lowering the home energy rating system (HERS) threshold, which assesses how much heat a building loses on a zero-to-100 scale. A lower rating means less heat is lost from a building. After July 1, 2024, all-electric buildings will need to meet a rating of 45, and 42 if they use fossil fuels. The previous ratings were 60 and 55, respectively. 

“It actually has to get lower if it’s a fossil fuel building,” Lake said. “I see that as sort of a punishment for the fact that you’re emitting carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels.”

New buildings will also need new ventilators, and must have at least one electric vehicle outlet. “I sort of take a little local pride for Aquinnah in [this],” Lake said. “We and West Tisbury are the only two towns that I knew of that, last year, adopted a requirement that every new building have an electric vehicle charger. The state has now picked it up, and put it in the stretch code.” 

The state also offers a “specialized” opt-in code, which Lake described as “an overlay on top of the stretch code.” These include additional requirements for buildings using fossil fuels, like being wired to be all-electric in the future, and to have solar photovoltaics for buildings larger than 4,000 square feet. 

Lake said the Vineyard sustainable energy committee recommended all Island towns adopt the opt-in code, which Lake said could be brought up during the spring town meeting. 

The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources also wants to develop a uniform set of laws to limit the use of fossil fuels in new construction, or even ban them completely. A few towns are currently part of the new pilot program, including Aquinnah

“When the [state] legislature adopted the new climate law last year, they authorized those towns … to enforce all-electric construction requirements,” Lake said. “The proposal is now to expand that number, now that the administration has changed.” 

A public hearing on the stretch code draft regulation was held on Wednesday, Feb. 8, and written comments can be submitted until Feb. 10. 

Lake proposed sending comments “arguing to delink the question of adopting the specialized code and adopting our all-electric requirement,” since they are separate issues. The board unanimously approved sending.

Lake also mentioned that Aquinnah, alongside Chilmark, is “receiving assistance” from California-based Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to improve its green energy infrastructure and resilience. This includes possibly adding microgrids, which would store energy in batteries, to support facilities like shelters, police stations, and fire stations if the overall grid goes down. 

Lake said he has been in contact with the lab’s scientists on whether a microgrid could make sense for Aquinnah’s town buildings and buildings of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). A written report is expected in the future. Lake said this project will need to be considered with the town buildings’ remodeling and solar implementation in mind. 

Aquinnah town administrator Jeffrey Madison pointed out that the technology and regulations “are in a constant state of flux,” which can make it difficult for consumers to convert to all-electric energy. While Madison is in favor of sustainable energy, some things were not “fiscally prudent” for many residents. The cost of installing a photovoltaic system has “tripled in the last couple of years” and some electricity-use rebates are not available anymore, according to Madison. 

“It’s really frustrating,” Madison said. “I feel like I bought a ticket on a steamer and the steamer left three days ago, and I need to swim to catch up.” 

Madison also heard complaints from town residents that some low-cost solar installers “disappear” after an incomplete job. 

Board chair Juli Vanderhoop agreed with Madison, adding that the number of sustainable energy options can make it unclear for consumers who want “to do the right thing.” Lake said Cape Light Compact has money to educate Islanders about sustainable energy. More recently, the compact contracted with Vineyard Power. 

After further discussion, Vanderhoop said more information will be needed before the town can enter any agreements or contracts. Lake said, “The process is underway.”