Vineyard Unplugged: Island homes turn to the sun for energy

By Martha Shaw  (Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts)

Gay and Art Nelson

Gay and Art Nelson of West Tisbury have had hopes of becoming energy independent ever since the oil embargo in the 1970s, which left the Island vulnerable to a shortage in fuel. At that time, there were tax credit and rebate incentives across the country to support local renewable energy. According to Art, they had the potential to prevent what he and others believe is an impending energy situation.

“Solar-powered homes got a false start back then, as did wind power,” says Art. “But the new technology makes it so easy, the Island is back on track.”

Years ago the Nelsons were happy to generate enough solar power at their wilderness camp to run a refrigerator and lights. Now the solar panels on their home in West Tisbury regularly generate a surplus of energy that they sell back to NStar.

“It feels good to be feeding the grid,” says Art. “On a sunny day, it’s comforting to watch the electric meter spin backward. Since last August when we installed the new panels, we have generated over three thousand kilowatt-hours. If our roof were facing directly south and had a higher pitch, we could make even more.”

Like many islands, Martha’s Vineyard has a colorful energy history that goes back for centuries and includes windmills, whale blubber, fuel tankers, contemporary submarine cables, and now photovoltaic cells in solar panels.

“I think some people assume that solar isn’t a good source for us here because we don’t have enough direct sunlight, but that is not the case,” says Gay. “There are places in northern Europe and even higher latitudes that are far more rainy and cloudy, yet they’ve been relying on solar panels for decades. The biggest shortage here is economic incentive.”

Watching the electric meter run backward has become a favorite pastime of her grandchildren. But, according to Gay, when there are a lot of kids in the house running around, taking showers and powering up electronics, they tend to use up everything the panels generate. Running the laundry and other machinery on sunny days makes a big difference.

Glenn and Linda Hearn

In college in the 1960s, Glenn Hearn used a solar panel with a couple of wires and a plug to power his transistor radio. Since then he has been interested in the science of renewable energy. When Glenn designed and built his own house in West Tisbury 10 years ago, he faced the roof precisely south and planned ahead for solar panels, knowing that the technology was evolving and would someday be up to speed. The most difficult thing, he remembers, was predicting when panel manufacturers would get production up and the price down enough to make it cost effective for heating and powering homes.

“In the 60s and 70s, people got tax credits for doing the right thing,” says Glenn. “The credits motivated everybody to insulate buildings and to think about renewable energy. At the time, it made a huge difference. Our government missed the boat when it took away incentives, so now we have a very complicated economy around energy that we must live with. The future will be interesting. I hope that someday we’ll have fuel cell designs so sophisticated that our cars will power our homes.”

For now, Linda and Glenn are content with the three arrays of six panels each that they have on the roof. The system is estimated to produce about 2,700 kilowatt-hours a year. Between March 2004 and October 2004 they generated between 200 and 400 kilowatt- hours per month. In January, with the sun lower in the sky, more cloud cover, and snow drifting over the panels, production fell to 85 kilowatt- hours, enough to run some appliances.

With or without photovoltaic cells, Glenn originally designed the home to take full advantage of the sun’s energy, orienting the windows to optimize sunshine in the winter and shade in the summer. Though Linda wasn’t directly involved with the building process, the topic of solar research and development has peaked her interest since the 1970s, when there was plenty of optimism for renewable, locally generated energy.

“I prefer the solar to fossil fuel, because I always know where my home’s energy is coming from,” says Linda. “It’s comforting.”

Susan and Bob Wasserman

Though it is easier to plan for solar in new construction than to retrofit a house later, Bob and Susan Wasserman love Victorian homes. When they made the decision to go solar with their West Tisbury home, built in 1863, they contacted local architect and solar specialist Kate Warner.

This launched a project that is now complete.

“It’s been rewarding, “ says Susan. “The project appealed to a sense of responsibility that I grew up with. We remember the Great Depression. I never assume that resources are unlimited and I’m not comfortable with wasting anything.”

The first thing they did was to get a free home energy audit, sponsored by Cape Light Compact, available to every Island resident (contact 800-797-6699). After the audit, the Wassermans got a detailed report on where they were losing heat and exactly what was using energy where, and to what extent. Through efficiency and proper insulation, the home reached its energy conservation goal. Susan was surprised by how easy it was to cut down on kilowatt hours. “The great thing is that there is no deprivation when you maximize your energy efficiency. Most things were a matter of being more aware.”

A solar array was installed next to their vegetable garden. It now generates about one third of their household’s energy, including a home office of fax machines, phones, copiers, and other equipment. On a particularly sunny day the array can produce much more energy than the Wassermans need. In that case, their electric meter spins backward, and NStar purchases the renewable energy.

Bob Wasserman says he is not doing this for the payback, although it will eventually pay for itself. “My payback is how pleased I am,” he says. “Fossil fuel depends on sources of supply over which we have little or no control. It’s not about what politician you support, because the system itself is political, and there is no way around it but to think independently as an Island community.”

Susan agrees, “We have terrific, smart people on the Vineyard, and I think we’ll get it right by learning from other islands around the world and by communicating well. Together we can create a role model for others and a healthy place to live. Feeling good about our energy is an intriguing idea.”

On Saturday, July 16, there is a Solar Home Tour in West Tisbury from 9 am to noon, all within walking distance of the Farmer’s Market. A good place to start is at 1085 State Road. Look for signs and yellow balloons or see the Calendar section of The Times for site locations. To find out more about this and other local energy projects, 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.