Island residents install solar panels to reduce pollution

by Martha Shaw

Susan and Mas Kimball

When Sue Kimball checks the news, she also checks the level of air quality published every day. “People are ignoring the fact that the air is getting worse,” she says.

It was pollution that drove Sue and Mas Kimball to build a home that consumes as little power from dirty power plants as possible. Neither of them understands how anyone could put up a new house these days without at least considering passive solar in the building plans. Passive solar means orienting your house and windows so you get heat from the sun when you need it most and get shaded from the sun when you need it least, thus reducing the need for heat and air conditioning.

They also agreed that they wanted their house to be an Energy Star, a government designated term for things that minimize energy usage.

“We know that the more energy we use, the more impact we have on the earth,” says Mas. “We outfitted the house with Energy Star appliances and put four large solar panels on the roof. That’s how we do our part.”

To produce their own energy, they researched solar energy options. There are two basic kinds. Solar hot water systems heat water as it flows through solar collectors and sends it to a storage tank. Solar electric systems (or photovoltaics) create DC electricity in solar panels, which is converted to AC in an inverter that is connected to the house’s electric panel.` The electricity generated is registered by a meter on the house, and feeds the utility grid. The Kimballs chose to do solar electric because it allows energy to be either used by the house or sold back to the grid, and because it’s more common these days.

Mas explains, “The solar industry is concentrating more on solar electricity, so inverter efficiency and panel technology is getting better all the time. We put four large 300-watt panels on the roof and a hi-tech inverter in the garage. The more people implement it, the more economical it gets, and we love being part of its growth.”


Even though the number of panels on the Island multiplies by the month, people are still surprised to see that the Vineyard can capture so much energy from the sun. The Kimballs find that when their friends stop by they like to marvel at the meter. When the meter spins backward, NStar buys back the kilowatt-hours. Economically, however, it works out better to use the energy produced from the panels right on the spot. So, Sue likes to synchronize running her washer and dryer with sunny days. This gives modern meaning to the age-old expression, “Make hay while the sun shines.” A native of Great Britain, she believes that our country takes fossil fuel for granted. “For Europeans, conservation of fuel has always been a way of life.”

Darlene and Paul Breen

Darlene Oberg and Paul Breen put eight 160-watt solar electric panels on their roof, mainly because the idea of free power makes them feel — powerful. “I don’t like the idea of relying on foreign oil because there are too many political things going on that are out of my control,” says Paul. “In my eyes, ninety percent of the reason why we’re in Iraq is for the oil, the other 10 percent is a grudge. I’m unhappy about environmental and educational grants getting cut. Also, burning fossil fuel is unhealthy.”

Like many other solar energy producers, Darlene and Paul get a kick out of watching their meter spin backward, and so do their guests. Darlene muses, “When people come by, we all go watch the meter. You laugh, but people are really impressed. Especially on a nice sunny day.”

On a cloudy day, Darlene and Paul use most of the energy they generate, and the meter just hovers in neutral. Last month’s historical snowstorm was an exception. The panels were covered with snow for more than two weeks and their electric meter churned forward like everybody else’s. Eventually icicles signaled that snow was melting off the roof and it slowly began to spin backward again. “We jumped for joy,” says Darlene. And, Paul adds, “It felt good to be powered up again.”

Eric Stricoff and Rhonda Cohen

The fact that two of the dirtiest power plants in Massachusetts, Brayton Point and Canal Sandwich, are just upwind of the Island was all the incentive that Eric Stricoff and Rhonda Cohen needed to put up the largest residential solar panel array to date in Edgartown. Eric describes the big day when the twenty 150-watt panels were up and running, “On July 15, 2004, our system, estimated to generate 3,000-3,500 kilowatt-hours per year, went live. Producing clean energy is uplifting. They’re all kilowatt-hours that don’t produce air pollution.”

With 3,000 kilowatt-hours being produced by the sun, the house that once fed on 8,000-9,000 kilowatt-hours a year was down to a diet of 6,000 kilowatt-hours produced by dirty power plants burning oil, gas and coal. For both Rhonda and Eric, that was still way too much.

Intent on cutting back, they turned to conservation and efficiency. As a result of the free energy audit offered by Cape Light Compact (contact 800-797-6699) they shaved off another 30 percent by cutting down their usage. Cape Light Compact energy auditor Tom Mayhew amazed them with dozens of ways to conserve energy that required nothing of them but more conscientiousness. They unplugged the clock in the guestroom. They began to unplug the VCR, cable box and TV that remain on-demand even when they’re turned off. They began to unplug all appliances with digital time clocks, including the microwave and stove when they weren’t using them. They replaced all light bulbs in every fixture, indoors and out, with fluorescent bulbs given to them by the auditor. They insulated the bulkhead, sealed the basement and directed water away from the house to reduce the load on the dehumidifier. They became more meticulous about cleaning the lint screen in the dryer. Computers, chargers and lights got turned off more often. They scrutinized everything in their house right down to the 20-watt nightlight, which was replaced with a two-watt light. Though some of these may seem ridiculously insignificant, it all added up to save them another 3,000 kilowatt-hours a year of dirty energy. In total, they reduced their burden on the power plants by 6,000 kilowatt-hours a year. But that still leaves 3,000, and Rhonda speaks up about this, “We need to put more pressure on our legislators to adopt better environmental policies. Even locally, I think the Island can adopt more sustainable practices in the areas of energy, transportation, water protection and waste if we all work together.”

Theoretically, reducing demand for energy means reducing harmful emissions from the power plants. In the case of the coal burning power plant at Brayton Point in Somerset, the significance is far greater. Mercury spewing from coal burners settles in our coastal waters and is known to concentrate in our fish. Thus, here on the Island, the type of energy we consume not only affects the quality of the air we breathe, but the health of our local economy.

One of the foremost experts on energy issues is author Paul Roberts. His talk about “The End of Oil” will take place at the Old Whaling Church on Saturday, March 12 at 7:30 pm, followed by discussion about ways to meet the energy challenges of a changing world. To find out more about this and other events on energy efficiency and renewable energy on Martha’s Vineyard, go to

This article is sponsored by the Vineyard Energy Project through a grant from the Department of Energy’s Million Solar Roofs program. The Vineyard Energy Project promotes sustainable energy choices through education, outreach, and renewable energy projects. The author, Martha Shaw, is a member of the Vineyard Energy Project’s Advisory Board. The Times publishes these columns as a service to its readers.