Eight months from now, the Vineyard could finally be able to boast its first significant, working, zero-carbon energy project. And the power will come not from wind but from the sun.
By the start of July two towns, Edgartown and Tisbury, could be harvesting all their municipal energy needs from several acres of solar panels, and doing it affordably.
That, of course, is if things all go according to the plan mapped out by the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative, a consortium of towns here and on the mainland, which hopes to take advantage of a generous new state government program which subsidizes solar power generation to make it competitive with other forms of electricity.
How competitive? Well according to the cooperative, the power will come at about 10 cents per kilowatt hour, roughly the same as power costs now, and a bargain compared with the 18.7 cents for which Cape Wind has contracted to sell power from its wind turbines.
That’s not the real cost, of course. Unsubsidized, said Kitt Johnson, Edgartown’s representative on the cooperative, solar comes in at around 40 cents a kilowatt hour.
Until early September, which the state promulgated the rates at which it would underwrite solar, that cost was clearly prohibitive. Which was a pity, because in other ways solar has some real advantages.
“These things are passive. They don’t move, they don’t disturb any aspect of the environment. They’ve been approved for use in watersheds and conservation areas. They’re really benign. The only problem is they’re not terribly efficient,” Mr. Johnson said.
“But the state is trying to get enough action going to make people build plants here to make [alternative energy technologies], so they’ve instituted what are called Solar Energy Renewable Certificates – so called SRECs.”
It’s all part of the government’s determination that a proportion of Massachusetts energy needs come from non-fossil fuel sources.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of solar over wind power, said Mr. Johnson, is that they do not attract the kind of opposition that wind turbines do, like the alleged noise and danger to wildlife, and above all the aesthetic objections to giant towers sticking up hundreds of feet above the landscape.
“What we have seen too often,” said Mr. Johnson, “is that the projects get started, but about two-thirds of the way to being actually erected, suddenly people come out of the woodwork to say, ‘not in may backyard.’
“That’s happened over and over again; people who care about renewable energy put a lot of work into getting projects off the ground, and then there is a lot of dissension and it stops.
“The people who are against it can make it very unpleasant.”
He instanced the example of a previous plan to install a medium-sized wind turbine at the Edgartown wastewater plant, into which great planning effort was put, which had looked promising, but which degenerated into “a real food fight.”
To the extent that Edgartown has abandoned any plans for wind generation.
“So we were looking for other things we could do,” Mr. Johnson said.
“And we discovered this little window of opportunity, just at the end of the year, where if we could get some projects rolling quickly, solar suddenly became affordable and feasible.”
Peter Cabana, Tisbury’s representative on the cooperative, agrees that strong opposition to wind power has driven the move to solar.
“I actually think there is a high degree of probability that we will see very little land-based wind development in this state in the future,” he said.
“And probably not much in state waters, out to three miles. Wind projects in federal waters, more than 12 miles out, though, are a different thing, and we’ll see a lot more of that.”
Large-scale offshore wind projects have long lead times, though. Solar installations can be up remarkably quickly. And the folks at the cooperative view that not just as an advantage, but a necessity.
“The reason solar is so hot right now is that the SREC rules just got promulgated in early September, establishing the [subsidy] value. That’s the driver,” said Margaret Downey, the Cape Light Compact cooperative representative.
“But there is only so much money to go around.”
For this reason that co-op was ready to solicit requests for proposals as soon as the state promulgated its rules for funding.
“We were waiting to release the RFP until we knew what the rules would be. But we had been having discussions for months.”
Speed is of the essence. More than 15 companies have expressed interest in bidding on the Edgartown and Tisbury projects. Their proposals are due by next Tuesday. Then the cooperative will assess their feasibility very fast.
Assuming the bidders determine the sites – three in Edgartown and one in Tisbury – and the SRECs are forthcoming from the state, “They should be up and running by July 1 next year,” she said.
As to the scope of the solar projects, Mr. Johnson said the plan was to generate enough electricity to meet the municipal needs of the two towns – not the needs of domestic users – about 120 kilowatts for Edgartown and about 80 for Tisbury.
Because solar panels are only an average 12 per cent efficient in these climes, he said, that would involve an installed capacity of around two megawatts in Edgartown and one megawatt in Tisbury. And that in turn means putting quite a lot of land under solar panels.
“As a general rule of thumb, you need about five acres of open space for each megawatt of panels. So we’d need about 10 acres, minimum in Edgartown and five in Tisbury.”
The numbers are quite imprecise right now, he said, in the absence of firm proposals from the potential developers.
“The basic arrangement in Edgartown is somewhere between two and six megawatts depending on how the bids come in. We’re only going to do it if it’s very attractive, and we won’t know the economics until we get the bids,” said Mr. Johnson.
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