OUR OWN ENERGY ISLAND: MARTHA'S VINEYARD

ALMOST EIGHT HOURS AFTER we left Copenhagen, the pilot announced that we would soon be landing at Logan Airport in Boston. Julie, in the seat beside me, glanced out the window. “Look, Gramps, you can see all of Cape Cod!” she exclaimed.

Paul and Tom, sitting just in front of us, heard her and craned to look out their window.

“I see the two islands besides the Cape,” said Julie. “Which is Nantucket and which is Martha’s Vineyard?”

“The one to the left is Martha’s Vineyard,” Paul answered. “To get there you have to take a ferry from Woods Hole, a lot like the one we rode on to Samsø,” he explained.

Global Warming Cape Cod
Cape Cod and the Islands, seen from above by satellite.

 
The children gazed at the Cape and Islands receding behind us. Then Tom spoke up. “I wonder if they’re doing any clean energy projects on those islands—like the ones we saw on Samsø?”

I was a bit doubtful but didn’t want to be discouraging. “You and Paul might want to check that out online when you get home,” I suggested.
 
I’M A LITTLE SURPRISED to get a call from Tom the very next weekend. He and Julie have been out of school all week since returning from Denmark, and spent some of their free time checking out clean energy prospects on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

“Guess what?” he announces. “We may have our own energy island right here in Massachusetts!”

“Really! Which island?” I ask.

“Martha’s Vineyard,” he answers. “I searched for alternative energy on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket and found something called Vineyard Power. Here, listen to what it says on their website:”

Vineyard Power is a renewable energy cooperative based on Martha’s Vineyard. Our mission as a 21st-century utility company is to produce electricity from local, renewable resources while advocating for and keeping the benefits within our community.

“Doesn’t that sound a lot like Samsø?”

“It does. Søren told us that cooperatives are quite common in Denmark, remember? Especially in farming communities. Did you find a name of someone on the Vineyard who could tell us more about Vineyard Power?”

“Yup. A guy named Erik Peckar is general manager of the cooperative. I have a phone number and an e-mail address for him. Wouldn’t it be cool to go over and visit?”

“Very cool. Why don’t you send him an e-mail and ask whether someone could show us around, like Maren and Jens did on Samsø. If he says yes, I’ll take you over to check it out.”

“Okay! Can Paul come? He helped me with the Internet search.”

“Sure. And I hope Julie will come along too, if she’s interested. She can also bring a friend.”

A week later, Tom calls again. “Gramps!” His voice is high with excitement. “I got a message back from Erik Peckar, and he says we’re welcome to visit! If we come on a Saturday, he’ll bring a couple of local kids along to show us the island.”

“Erik will bring a couple of local kids to show us the island.”

“Good job! You and Paul pick a Saturday in May, and I’ll drive you from Boston down to Woods Hole. Does Julie want to join us?”

“Yes, and she wants to bring Amaya.”

“Great! You figure out which Saturday will work best, and make sure it’s good for Mr. Peckar. Then let me know, and I’ll check the ferry schedule.”

Several weeks later, on a Saturday in late May, I bring my Prius to a halt in lane 5 of the ferry terminal at Woods Hole. It’s 10:30 in the morning, and the ferry is due to leave in fifteen minutes. Tom is beside me, with Paul and the two girls in the back seat.

Tom and Paul are busily comparing the M/V Island Home—that’s the name of the ferry—with the boat we took from Kalundborg to Samsø less than a month ago. This will be Amaya’s first ride on a car ferry: Julie is explaining that we’ll leave the car down below and ride in a big cabin upstairs, where you can even buy stuff to eat.

Julie notices that passengers without cars are already heading up the gangplank, and asks if she and the others can walk onto the boat while I wait with the car. “Sure,” I agree, handing them all tickets. “I’ll meet you in the passenger lounge.”

Global Warming Cape Cod
This ferry travels from Woods Hole to Martha’s Vineyard.

 
During the 45-minute trip across Nantucket Sound, the sun shines brightly but a steady northeasterly wind buffets the boat, making for a fairly rocky ride. As we drive off, Amaya is enthusiastic about her first ferry ride but wishes the boat hadn’t rolled so much. Julie agrees. “It made my stomach feel queasy.”

Tom scans the small crowd waiting at the Vineyard Haven terminal, looking for Erik Peckar.

Vineyard Haven Harbor

Some of the fancy houses overlooking the harbor.

Vineyard Haven Harbor

Most of the boat berths are empty in late April.

“There he is!” He points to a young man wearing a black woolen watch cap and a dark green parka. “He told me that’s what he’d be wearing!”

I guide the car to the curb where Mr. Peckar is standing. When Tom waves, he smiles wide and comes over to the car.

“Hi, I’m Erik,” he says. “You must be Tom.” We climb out of the car and Erik shakes hands all around.

“My car is right over there.” He points toward a nearby parking lot. “Follow me over to the Vineyard Power office here in town, and we’ll meet Ben and Sarah.”

Outside the Vineyard Power office, we find two young people lounging on the front step. They pop to their feet as the five of us unfold from my car, and come forward hesitantly. Erik introduces them as Ben and Sarah Pease.

“Let’s all go into the office for a few minutes,” he says, “so Sarah and Ben can use a map to orient you to the island. Then we’ll drive you around to some of our clean energy projects. How does that sound?”

Soon we’re gathered around a map laid out on the table in Vineyard Power’s small conference room. Ben, a lanky fourteen-year-old with sandy blond hair and a freckled nose, takes the lead.

“Here’s where we are now, in Tisbury,” he says, pointing with his finger. “About thirty-five hundred people live here year round. Same thing with Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, about three to four thousand people in each town.” Ben points them out on the map.

Global Warming Cape Cod
Map of Martha’s Vineyard
Vineyard Haven is shown as Tisbury on this map.

 
“Sarah and I live in Edgartown. There are three more villages on the island—Chilmark, West Tisbury, and Aquinnah. Those are quite a bit smaller, maybe fifteen hundred people in each town.”

Sarah pipes up. Eleven years old, she has reddish hair cut quite short and radiates energy. “West Tisbury is kind of like our farming area. Aquinnah is the home of the Wampanoag Indian tribe. And Chilmark has a really nice fishing village called Menemsha, where we’re going to take you for lunch!”

“I know you have lots of solar and wind projects over here,” Tom says, leaning over the map. “Where are they located?”

“Every town has at least one big solar array already built or in the planning process,” Erik answers. He indicates them on the map. “First we’re going to show you the one on the Chilmark landfill. Others are built on land that was once used for farming.”

“What about wind machines?” Julie wants to know. “Tom and Paul and I saw lots of those in Denmark last month.”

“We have twelve wind generators on the island,” Erik explains. “But I’m sure they’re much smaller than the ones you saw in Denmark. Here on Martha’s Vineyard, some people don’t like seeing wind turbines on the landscape. In fact, some even complain about our solar farms.”

He begins folding up the map. “I know you have to take the 3:45 p.m. ferry back to Woods Hole, so let’s see as much as we can before then,” he says. “Any of you want to ride with me?”

Scenes from Martha’s Vineyard

A traditional cottage overlooking the ocean.

Scenes from Martha’s Vineyard

A local art gallery.

Scenes from Martha’s Vineyard

Islanders have built walls with stones left by a glacier 12,000 years ago.

Paul and Tom join Ben in Erik’s car, and Sarah hops into mine with the two girls. Our route to the Chilmark solar park takes us inland toward the center of the island, through a mix of forests and open fields bordered with beautiful stone walls.

The Chilmark Solar Farm

This solar array sits on Chilmark’s old garbage dump.

The Chilmark Solar Farm

Electricity produced here is used by the local school and other town buildings.

The Chilmark Solar Farm

These panels produce 100 kilowatts of energy every hour when the sun is shining brightly.

We park in an open area overlooking a field where the people of Chilmark once dumped their trash. It has been capped with earth, and the artificial hill now supports hundreds of solar panels. With Erik leading the way, we walk out among them.

“This is a one-hundred-kilowatt solar farm,” Erik explains. “Which means that, on a sunny day, it will produce one hundred kilowatts of electricity during each hour of sunshine. The town uses that electricity to pay the power bill for public buildings like the school, the town hall, and the fire and police stations.”

“What about the people living in the town? Does it pay for their electricity, too?” asks Amaya.

“Not directly.” Erik shakes his head. “But Chilmark residents pay taxes that cover the cost of town services like the fire station, the police force, and fixing the roads. Because the town doesn’t pay much for power, people don’t have to pay as much in taxes. If we had to buy electricity from a power company and bring it over from Cape Cod, taxes would be higher.”

Sarah likes the way Amaya and Julie are thinking about energy and where it comes from. “We have solar panels on the roof of our house over in Edgartown,” she tells them. “My mom says that’s cut our electric bill by quite a lot.”

“On the Vineyard Power website, it says most of the electricity you use on the island comes from Woods Hole through four big cables,” Paul mentions. “What happens in the summer, when so many people come over and live in their summer houses? The demand for electricity must go way up then.”

“It does,” Sarah replies. “Down by the harbor in Vineyard Haven, there are four huge generators that make extra electricity when we need it. But they burn fossil fuels, so we want to find ways to produce more clean energy. Like these solar farms.”

Tom, standing among the rows of solar panels, voices an observation. “Paul and Julie and Gramps and I visited Samsø Island in Denmark last month,” he begins. “Over there they have some solar projects, but most of their electricity is generated with wind machines. It seems like here on Martha’s Vineyard, you’re using the sun more than wind.”

In contrast to Samsø, solar power is used more than wind power on the Vineyard.

Erik nods agreement. “That’s true right now, but it may change in the future. One of our wind machines is on the Allen Sheep Farm—let’s go there, and then I’ll tell you about a big ocean-based wind farm we’re planning to build.”

Our route to the Allen Farm takes us farther south, toward the coast. Across an open meadow we catch a glimpse of Tisbury Great Pond, a huge estuary that was used by the Navy for target practice during World War II and is now being restored.

Allen Farm On Martha’s Vineyard

These sheep have a nice view of the ocean.

Allen Farm On Martha’s Vineyard

About fifty lambs are born on the farm each spring.

Allen Farm On Martha’s Vineyard

Horses and donkeys also live on the farm.

Soon we turn onto a dirt road leading to the farmhouse. There we’re greeted by co-owner Clarissa Allen, the twelfth generation of Allens since 1762 to own and run this farm, and her son Nathaniel. Two donkeys and a horse watch placidly as we all shake hands; not far away, sheep and baby lambs graze in the open pasture.

“The wind generator is out in the back field, behind the barn,” Nathaniel explains, as we walk toward the back buildings.

The young people seem drawn to the animals, especially the baby lambs, as much as to the wind generator. “Can we pat the lambs after seeing the wind machine?” Julie asks. Her face and Amaya’s light up when Nathaniel smiles in assent.

Global Warming Cape Cod
The Allen Farm Turbine
This turbine is 120 feet high and produces about 100,000 kilowatts of electricity each year.

 
As we round the corner of the barn, the wind turbine comes into view, blades turning in the northeast wind. It stands proudly on a hill, one of the high points on the 100-acre farm. After we’ve watched silently for a moment, Paul asks, “So what’s the kilowatt rating for that turbine?”

“It’s a fifty-kilowatt machine,” Nathaniel answers. “It produces about a hundred thousand kilowatts of electricity a year, about three-quarters of what the farm uses.”

Tom looks at me. “That’s a lot more than you get from your turbine, right, Gramps?”

Climbing the Allen Farm Wind Machine

 
“It is. Mine creates about fifteen thousand kilowatts a year. This one is five times the size of my ten-kilowatt machine, but it produces more than five times as much power because the blades are so much longer.”

“How tall is the tower?” Julie wants to know.

“One hundred and twenty feet high,” says Nathaniel. “To get to the top, you climb a ladder along the outside. Then to work on the turbine itself, you open a door in the casing and climb inside. Gary Harcourt, the guy who got us the machine, made a video of what it’s like to climb up the tower.”

We make a mental note to look at the video once we’re back home. Julie tells Sarah and Ben about how exciting it was to climb up inside the turbine tower on Samsø, and to look out over the island from the top. Erik and Nathaniel are absorbed by the story, too.

Erik suggests we get lunch before heading to our other destinations on the island. On our way back to the cars, Julie and Amaya climb into the pasture to pat the lambs. “These babies are only about a month old,” Nathaniel explains. “About sixty lambs were born on the farm this spring. We kept a couple in the kitchen and bottle-fed them until they were strong enough to live outside.”

“Speaking of eating,” I say, “Let’s let those lambs get back to their grass and go find some lobster rolls for ourselves.”

Global Warming Cape Cod
Julie and Amaya fell in love with this lamb.

 
Continue to Chapter 10: Empowering Communities with Wind