EMPOWERING COMMUNITIES WITH WIND

OUR DESTINATION FOR LUNCH is Menemsha, but Ben and Sarah insist we take a short detour on the way, out to Gay Head, at the westernmost tip of the island. Open fields and views of the water greet us there, and we make the short hike—through summer eateries and shops shuttered in the off-season—up to an overlook at the top of the cliff.

“This land is owned by the Native American Wampanoag tribe,” Erik explains. “The cliffs have strong cultural meaning for them.”

The view is breathtaking. “Look!” cries Julie after a minute. “There are people walking on the beach, way down there! Did they climb down from the cliff!”

Gay Head is at the western end of Martha’s Vineyard.

 
“No, but there’s another way to get to the beach, which is very popular in the summer,” Erik affirms. “But you’ll have to do that on your next visit.”

“We come to that beach a lot in the summer,” mentions Ben as we walk back to the cars.

Tom and Paul are reminded again of their trip to Samsø. “Remember when Maren and Jens took us to the far end of the island?” says Paul. “Just like here, that place was much higher than the rest of the island—and we looked down across beautiful green fields to the water, way below us.”

“These cliffs are more spectacular, though,” Julie points out. Sarah looks pleased.

Menemsha is a quaint fishing village right at the mouth of Menemsha Pond, a saltwater estuary that spills into Nantucket Sound. There’s a Coast Guard station, some private homes, a gas station, and the Menemsha Fish Market. Five fishing boats are snuggled up to the long dock, and several Coast Guard boats are in the water, but otherwise the village has not yet awakened from its winter slumber.

We park overlooking the beach and parade into the fish market to buy lobster rolls, choosing drinks from a cold case. Lunches in hand, we shuffle back across the parking lot and out onto the sand. Although the sun is shining and the northeast wind has diminished, there’s still a nip in it.

Menemsha Village

The Menemsha Coast Guard Station.

Menemsha Village

Fishing and Coast Guard vessels in Menemsha harbor.

Menemsha Village

Lobster traps on the dock. Many lobster boats use the harbor.

Menemsha Village

The fish market where we got our lunch.

Menemsha Village

A Menemsha landmark, this sculpture recalls the time when fishermen caught swordfish with harpoons.

We settle down behind a dune to enjoy our fresh lobster, caught just yesterday from a Menemsha lobster boat.

“This is the town where the movie Jaws was filmed,” says Ben with a grin.

“For real?” Julie giggles nervously. “Yup,” Sarah answers casually, glancing out over the water.

After a few minutes, Tom reminds Erik that he promised to tell us about a plan for ocean-based wind turbines near Martha’s Vineyard. “Off Samsø, they have ten big wind turbines providing electricity directly to the island,” he recalls, wiping mayonnaise off his chin.

Samsø’s offshore wind machines.

 
“I’ve seen a video of Samsø and their ocean-based turbines,” says Erik, sipping from his soda can. “Here it’s more complicated, because the waters south of Martha’s Vineyard are controlled by the federal government.”

“Didn’t I read that the government is selling leases to wind companies that want to locate turbines out there?” I ask.

Erik nods. “That’s right. Vineyard Power is the community partner of a Danish company called Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, which is planning a project called Vineyard Wind. They want to build fifteen to twenty towers that will support five-megawatt wind turbines.”

Vineyard Wind will build 15 to 20 towers, each with a five-megawatt wind turbine.

“Wow!” Paul exclaims. “That’s a lot of power. I think each of the Samsø machines is only one megawatt. Will all that electricity come straight to the island?”

“No—we have to buy the electricity from Vineyard Wind, and it would come through the regular electric grid to the island, through the cables that connect us to the Cape.”

“Søren, over on Samsø, told us the Danish government buys the electricity from the Samsø Coop, and promises them a certain price for ten years,” Tom puts in. “He said that was really important, so banks would lend money to the Coop to build the turbines in the first place.”

The beach at Menemsha where we had lunch

 
Erik is impressed by Tom’s understanding of these economics. “Vineyard Wind has the same challenge —how to raise money to construct their wind project. They need loans from the big banks. And the banks need to know there are customers for the electricity the wind farm will produce.”

“So, couldn’t our towns here on the Vineyard just buy electricity directly from Vineyard Wind?” Ben asks.

“That’s how Vineyard Power would like things to work,” Erik answers. “But right now, state laws say that only private companies are allowed to buy and sell electricity. A private company might not buy electricity from a wind company, because it might cost more than buying from a power plant that burns gas or oil.”

Ben looks irritated. “That’s not fair!” he protests. “We want clean energy that isn’t warming up the climate. Why can’t we pay a little bit more if we want to?”

“Absolutely!” Erik agrees. “That’s why Vineyard Power is working to get the Massachusetts government to change the law, so towns can buy power directly from wind farms.” He climbs to his feet. “Come on, I’ll tell you are about it on the way back to the cars.”

As we walk, Erik describes something called the Act for Community Empowerment. Proposed by some Massachusetts legislators, the Act would allow towns and cities to buy renewable energy—produced by wind turbines and solar panels—directly from the companies developing the wind and solar projects. The towns and those companies would agree on a fixed price for the electricity for at least ten years, so that banks loaning money to the companies would know their loans would be paid back.

Before we set off again, Sarah asks Erik if we can drive down to Edgartown so the Boston kids can see where she and Ben live, and their school. Erik agrees. The route takes us first through West Tisbury, where we stop briefly to admire the impressive Tisbury solar farm, then continues past the Martha’s Vineyard Airport.

We’ve switched around in the cars, and the boys are now riding with me. Ben, Paul, and Tom can’t stop talking about how towns can’t buy electricity from any company they choose. “I don’t get it,” Ben says with frustration. “I thought in America people were free to buy stuff from anyone who would sell it to them.”

Solar park in the town of Tisbury.

 
“Part of the problem is that Vineyard Wind needs to know that towns will buy electricity from them before the wind machines are built,” I explain, “so the banks will lend them the money to construct the turbines. Towns are agreeing to buy energy in advance, but they won’t actually make the shift to clean energy until some years later, once the turbines are up and producing power.”

“What if the city of Boston wanted to shift to clean energy?” Tom asks. “Could they do it if this law was passed?”

“I believe so,” I reply. “If Boston agreed to buy lots of clean energy from wind farms, I bet companies would build a lot more turbines in that part of the ocean set aside by the federal government. It’s a big area, so there’s certainly room for plenty of wind towers.”

In Edgartown, we swing by Ben and Sarah’s house to get a glimpse of the solar panels on their roof, then push on through Oak Bluffs to Tisbury, where we started this morning.

Instead of heading for the ferry terminal, however, Erik continues up the hill, turns into the parking lot for Cronig’s Market, and parks under an unusual wing-shaped canopy.

Tom is the first to notice the plug-in charging station right in front of our Prius. “Hey, Gramps,” he says, pointing out the window, “if your car was electric, you could plug in right here!”

“That’s right!” Ben announces proudly, opening the back door. “We’re parked under a canopy made of solar panels. If you have an electric car and come here to shop, then you can plug in and be charging up while you shop.”

“We saw something like this on Samsø,” Julie reminds us, coming over from Erik’s car. “The island government uses it to charge up their electric cars.”

“Yes, but this is really cool because anybody can use it,” Tom adds.

We walk out to the street to get a good view of the whole canopy, and Ben leads us around the corner. He points to the roof: “See, there are more panels on top of the store.”

“This is a 210-kilowatt array,” Erik explains. “When the sun is shining, it provides most of the electricity the market needs to run its lights and refrigerators.”

“And there’s another Cronig’s Market up-island,” Sarah adds. “They have all this solar stuff, too.”

Solar Canopy and Rooftop Panels at Cronig’s Market

A canopy of solar panels shades the parking lot.

Solar Canopy and Rooftop Panels at Cronig’s Market

The market also has solar panels on the roof that shades its front porch and on the main roof.

Solar Canopy and Rooftop Panels at Cronig’s Market

Atop the roof is a giant grasshopper!

Solar Canopy and Rooftop Panels at Cronig’s Market

A banner on the store celebrates National Plug-In Day.

As we walk around checking out the solar canopy and charging stations, Amaya points up to the peak of the market roof. “What’s with the grasshopper?”

“That weather vane was made by a guy here on the island named Travis Tuck,” Erik answers. “Steve Bernier, who owns the market, says it’s like sculptures they used to have on markets in England back in the 1800s.”

My watch tells me that it’s already 3:15 p.m. “Oops,” I announce, “the ferry leaves in a half hour. We better get moving!”

While I thank Erik for organizing and leading our visit, Tom and Paul are making plans to stay in touch with Ben.

“We need to find a way to get that Community Empowerment Act passed, so the Vineyard Wind project has customers,” Ben urges. “Maybe we could work together on that, like talking with our representatives in the state government.” Paul and Tom give him a thumbs-up as they pile into the back seat.

As we settle into the lounge for the ferry ride, the boys quiz me about the process of getting state laws passed.

“Ben is right: talking with the state legislator who represents your district would be a good start,” I respond. “You could also arrange to talk with the lawmaker who actually wrote the proposed law, to learn more about it. Maybe there are other students in your class who’d like to help out.”

Julie and Amaya are listening closely. “I really like the idea of solar canopies,” Amaya says tentatively.

“Me too!” Julie agrees. “We saw them in Denmark and now again on Martha’s Vineyard. Maybe we could talk to somebody in Boston about setting some up there.”

Just then the ferry captain tells passengers to return to their cars for disembarkation. Out the window, we see the Woods Hole terminal dead ahead.

“You have some great ideas,” I say to the kids as we head for the stairs. “I hope you put them into action. Let me know if there’s something I can do to help.”

Continue to Chapter 11: Young Organizers for a Clean Energy Future