Fourth Annual Energy Day Held Tomorrow at Grange

By IAN FEIN

Should the Vineyard tax large energy users as a way to fund more renewable energy projects?

That question will be a topic of discussion at the fourth annual Energy Day tomorrow, when the building inspector from Aspen, Colo., will talk about a similar energy initiative that was enacted in his seasonal community.

The forum is set to begin at 10 a.m. as part of the day-long fair at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury, which will feature educational booths and vendors, as well as a solar car race at noon.

This year's fair comes as the economic and environmental costs of energy decisions are of increasing concern to Island residents and at the forefront of the national consciousness, but it is also a time when the Vineyard nonprofit group dedicated to energy education and advocacy finds itself at a crossroads.

Energy awareness is at an all-time high, but the group's federal funding is set to expire this fall. The Vineyard Energy Project is facing a financial crisis.

"The question is, where should this go?" said Kate Warner, director of the Vineyard Energy Project, which operates with a small board of directors and is a co-sponsor of the Energy Day events tomorrow. "It seems like our service is proving valuable to this community, because as fuel prices increase, more and more people are calling us for information and assistance. And we want to help anyone who calls here with an energy question. But how that is going to happen, at this point, remains unclear."

Since it formed a few years ago, the Vineyard Energy Project's outreach programs have promoted efforts to make the Island more energy independent. It helped secure 14 solar demonstration sites across the Vineyard, and also commissioned a private consultant to study the Island's energy resources and author a 10-year energy action plan.

But as of Sept. 1, the organization's largest source of funding will run dry.

"This is not an optimistic thing for us," Ms. Warner said.

The Vineyard Energy Project took root almost four years ago when Ms. Warner received a U.S. Department of Energy grant from the Million Solar Roofs program. Through the federal program since then, she has secured almost $200,000 in funding for education and planning efforts on the Vineyard. But the Million Solar Roofs program has been eliminated for the coming year, and almost all of the regional Department of Energy offices will be closing next June.

With almost 150 solar systems on the Island already, Ms. Warner said the group will continue to work toward its goal of 500 solar roofs by 2010, as well as its larger aspiration to produce a majority of the Vineyard's energy from renewable sources. But now the Vineyard Energy Project – which also relies on private donations and other grants - will be doing so without a solid source of funding,

"We've applied for some grants, and will continue to apply for others. We're committed to continuing to work," Ms. Warner said. "But we need help."

Ms. Warner suggested that if the Vineyard is serious about its energy future, and the work of the organization is seen as a public service, then the Island should look to Aspen - another seasonal community with large second homes - as a model for local funding mechanisms.

Five years ago the city of Aspen enacted stricter green building codes and developed a renewable energy mitigation program, where property owners with homes over 5,000 square feet are required to either install renewable energy systems in their homes or pay an extra tax into an energy fund that promotes other sustainable projects in town. The fund has collected more than $2 million in fees.

Aspen building inspector Stephen Kanipe will explain the program during the Energy Day forum tomorrow.

The energy user fee, as implemented in Colorado, may require an act of the Massachusetts state legislature before it could be enacted on the Vineyard. But Cape and Islands state senator Robert O'Leary has said that the Island could develop a similar program through the broad powers of the Martha's Vineyard Commission.

If they established an energy district of critical planning concern (DCPC), Vineyard towns would likely be able to exert regulatory authority over energy use and possibly create a funding mechanism for renewable energy projects elsewhere on the Island. Ms. Warner suggested that energy user fees could be administered by an organization, such as the Vineyard Energy Project, which would distribute them for renewable projects or outreach efforts.

Ms. Warner said she thinks the Aspen model is a good one to follow on the Island.

"It gives people choice, it encourages what we would want to encourage, and it seems fair," she said.

The other sponsor of the Energy Day tomorrow - the Cape Light Compact - is a regional public organization that also is involved in educational outreach about energy. But Ms. Warner noted while the Compact is funded through electricity bills and is focused on electricity efficiency, the Vineyard's long-term energy future will need to address other types of energy as well.

"Electricity is a good place to start with, because its cost is so high as of late," she said. "But I think we will find the Vineyard needs to do more about all types of energy use."

Ms. Warner said that although Vineyard residents may hesitate to create a user fee program here, she believes it would prove to be in their long-term interest.

Currently, less than one-tenth of one per cent of the Vineyard's energy is produced on the Island, with the rest coming from the mainland, either by boat or underwater cable. Ms. Warner said the less the Vineyard depends on mainland energy, the better for the Island economy.

"The less energy we use on Martha's Vineyard, the more we have to share around - for everybody," Ms. Warner said. "It's going to cost people in the short run. But in the long run, they will be so happy that the Vineyard has planned for the future. There's nothing more responsible than that."