The sun powers up Agricultural Hall by Martha Shaw

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By Martha Shaw
August 10, 2006

Just in time for the Agricultural Fair, a new solar electric system on the roof of the Ag Society’s main barn is now providing the building with free energy from the sun. Installing the solar panels and hooking them up was a community project involving four of the Island’s electrical companies, which volunteered to help out while getting free training on the job.

Matt Larsen of MV Electricians led the effort, which included their own and local electricians from Berube Electric, Powers Electric, and Ronald Pine Electric, with help from Larry Schubert, who installed the mounting racks for the solar panels.

“Being on one job, hand in hand, was fun,” said Matt. “It would have taken a day and a half with two people, but we had it up and running in 5 hours, joking around the whole time. The meter was spinning and we were making electricity.”

“It was nice to see all the different electricians pull together,” said Eleanor Neubert, who is the Agricultural Fair Manager, Secretary to the Board of Trustees, and the one who books the events at the Ag Hall.

The idea of solar energy on the building has been percolating for years, but the Board of Trustees was waiting for the time to be right, according to Bill Haynes, the chairman of the Ag Society’s Building Committee. When they were offered the solar electric system from the Edgartown School, which was being replaced by a larger and more accessible one, they rose to the occasion. A Renewable Energy Trust grant created a perfect opportunity to move ahead in time for the fair. “It’s a big building that takes a lot of lighting and heating,” said Mr. Haynes. “We should be doing more of this.”

Mr. Haynes is also among the many folks on the Island who are now heating their swimming pools with solar collectors and claim that hot water feels better when it has been heated for free by the sun. “I believe in it,” he said. “Solar energy can’t do any harm.”

Many other projects

The Agricultural Society project is one of the 87 solar electric installations and 69 solar hot water systems that are part of the goal of 500 Vineyard Solar Roofs by 2010, under the U.S. Department of Energy’s Million Solar Roofs program. The program funded much of the Vineyard’s energy education and outreach over the last four years and was led by Kate Warner, Director of the Vineyard Energy Project (VEP). With the federal decision to close all but two U.S. Department of Energy regional offices, the Million Solar Roofs program has ended. “It seems a fitting end to the formal Million Solar Roofs program, that Island electricians would collaborate to install a system on a community building, working together on the Island’s energy future,” said Kate Warner.

Despite the conclusion of Million Solar Roofs, subsidies from the Renewable Energy Trust and a federal income tax credit for 2006 and 2007 will continue. VEP’s energy education and outreach also remain full speed ahead, with a focus on helping to move the Island towards greater energy independence from fossil fuels and the electrical umbilical cord to the mainland.

Hope for a renewable energy future, as well as a more environmentally sustainable Island, can also be found in Edgartown’s Atria Restaurant. The Atria recently started up its new solar hot water system, which should provide enough hot water heating for its entire three-season operation, including hot water for dishwashing, food preparation, and washrooms.

According to Atria owner and chef, Christian Thornton, the new solar panels have an immediate payback and could spare the atmosphere of more than four tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. “I was aware of how much energy it takes to run a restaurant,” said Christian. “So, when they came to me with a plan, it was an easy sell. This was not some pie in the sky. At today’s prices, the payback is around $2000 per year, which could go up considerably with a rise in fuel prices.”

Brian Nelson and David Sprague of Nelson Mechanical use a clean energy analysis software tool called RETScreen, developed by NASA, to take the guesswork out and evaluate the energy production and savings, life-cycle costs, financial viability and emission reductions. “All of us have kids, and we want to provide a better world for them,” said Brian Nelson. “When we use up the earth’s resources, we’re taking it from them.”

Christian Thornton agreed, “It’s important to know where your food comes from and the impact that has. Knowing where your energy comes from is just as important.”

The Million Solar Roofs program has paved the way for the Island to embrace solar energy and other renewable resources by proving that affordable technology exists and is readily available to reduce the last century’s precarious dependence on fossil fuels. Its lasting effect will be a community that is more educated about energy and more self-reliant – in keeping with the Island’s history of independence and ingenuity.

The public can view the solar electric system on the Ag Hall at the Agricultural Fair and read all about it. Look for a sign on the Main Barn and in the Hall. For more information on energy, solar electric, hot water or pool heating systems for your home or business, visit www.vineyardenergyproject.org.

To find out more about energy efficiency and renewable energy projects on the Island, visit www.vineyardenergyproject.org. This article is sponsored by the Vineyard Energy Project through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. 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.