With 1,300 members and the Island’s first municipal solar array a reality as of this week, Vineyard Power, the Island energy cooperative that was little more than an idea three years ago, is now a viable enterprise.
But with 8,000 members needed to make the next big project a reality – a $200 million offshore wind farm in a state-approved area south of the Vineyard – the fledgling community cooperative still has a good distance to travel to meet its goals.
But if you think it sounds impossible, meet Paul Pimentel, alternative energy engineer, Vineyard Power board chairman and eternal optimist.
“It’s an important number – if we don’t get a significant number of members by the time we’re ready to commit significant dollars to that wind farm, then we may not do it, because it means we can’t all pull together,” Mr. Pimentel said in a recent interview. “Now, I don’t believe that to be true. I believe we can do it,” he said. “We’re trying to be a community organization, a community utility. To the extent that more of us join in, it represents a firmer commitment, and more important, we can’t do what we want to do unless we have the organization behind us and the community behind us.
From the Vineyard Power office in Vineyard Haven, Mr. Pimentel and general manager Erik Peckar talked about the cooperative’s progress since its founding in 2009, its future on land and offshore and its role in the community.
The number 8,000 represents about half the year-round population; if Vineyard Power signs up that many members it will eligible for U.S. Department of Agriculture rural utility services loans.
The cooperative hopes to fund its planned offshore wind farm from these loans as well as investors.
In 2010, the state set aside 3,000 square miles of federal ocean water to be auctioned off for commercial development of wind farms; the number has since been reduced to 1,300 square miles. Vineyard Power wants to bid on the three blocks closest to the Vineyard and plans to build 10 turbines, expected to produce 42 megawatts of energy. Construction is expected to begin by 2018. The proposed sale notice, the first in a multi-step development process, for blocks south of the Vineyard is expected in August 2013. Vineyard Power has a partner on the project: Offshore MW, a developer backed by Blackstone.
Membership in Vineyard Power started at $50 and is currently $150, a one-time payment for lifetime membership in the cooperative. The cost goes up to $200 in April, and is projected to reach $975 by the time construction begins on the planned wind farm, Mr. Peckar said. Fees go toward office space, Mr. Peckar’s salary and administrative work for the nonprofit. Members have voting rights, including deciding what type of electricity the cooperative develops and choosing the location of the potential offshore wind farm. Vineyard Power offers incentives for new members, such as gift cards with member businesses.
And the membership drive continues.
“The more members we have the stronger we are as a community cooperative,” said Mr. Peckar. “We’re advocating for community benefits within the whole leasing process . . . which means more Island jobs, more of the money stays local and we have control over the organization. In a sense we are owning our renewable energy future.”
“We believe there is going to be a turning point for us at each milestone as it gets more and more certain that this is going to happen,” he added. The next milestone will happen in the coming year when the bidding and leasing of ocean blocks is set to begin.
“This is a great opportunity for the community to really take control of their energy and own their energy,” Mr. Peckar said. “The Island as a community is one of the only communities in the country that could have potentially a 270-degree view of wind turbines. That’s a big thing.”
Once the wind turbines are operating, members of the cooperative will eventually receive their electricity from Vineyard Power. NStar customer electricity bills are broken down into two different charges, Mr. Peckar explained: electricity charges and generation charges. Vineyard Power will be the generator and its members will pay a discounted rate.
“Over the long term it’s about being a part of the cooperative, saving money and keeping our electricity prices stable and affordable,” Mr. Peckar said.
Mr. Pimentel drew a distinction between Vineyard Power’s proposed offshore wind project and Cape Wind, the large commercial wind farm slated to be built on Nantucket Sound.
“I think we have a very different take than, say, [developer] Jim Gordon did on Cape Wind,” he said. “We don’t look at this as a development; we’re not trying to make money.”
“We’re trying to save money,” Mr. Peckar said.
“It’s a very different mindset and I think that will make a difference,” Mr. Pimentel added.
And while building a wind farm is Vineyard Power’s biggest planned project, it’s not the only one. The cooperative to date has developed three solar projects, including the municipal solar array at the capped Aquinnah landfill that had a ribbon cutting this week. The cooperative also developed two solar canopies at Cronig’s Market in Vineyard Haven; those canopies began producing power this month. Another canopy will soon be under construction at Up-Island Cronig’s in West Tisbury. Mr. Pimentel said Vineyard Power is hoping to do similar covered parking solar arrays in other locations on the Island.
The two men said the solar projects have helped the cooperative with its learning curve.
“We can’t go from zero to 60, doing all of this – financing, insurance, legal framework – we’re just ramping to get us to that next step,” Mr. Peckar said.
“We have learned the hard way all about how to, from the business structures, how to go about getting revenue and the investment money and bank money,” Mr. Pimentel said. “It’s been arduous.”