The Vineyard skyline has changed in recent years. Amid the colonial-style shingles, solar arrays have become an increasingly common sight on the roofs of Island homes, their shiny blue panels pointed advantageously towards the sky like a sunbathing tourist.

The Vineyard Sustainable Energy Committee has reported 1,127 solar arrays currently installed on-Island, up 18 per cent from the beginning of 2020. Nationally, solar is fastest-growing source of electricity — ballooning nearly 4,000 per cent in just over a decade.

But as demand for solar energy increases, expensive grid upgrades and an often-misunderstood governmental regulatory body stand to cast a shadow over the industry’s progress.

Mike Benjamin has been ready for solar since May of last year. He received an evaluation from Cotuit Solar that had determined that an array of 27kWAC would best suit his Edgartown home, located at the former dairy co-op on Beach Road. He made the deposit and even secured funding from a private loan service to cover the $75,000 price tag. The next step was to submit the application to Eversource, paying a $300 application fee and waiting the standard 90 days for a response.

“They came back and said I would need to pay $12,000 to upgrade the transformers in my area,” Mr. Benjamin said. “Now, I’m wondering why in a functioning state that responsibility would fall on me.”

The local electrical grid was originally designed only for a one-way flow of electricity, Rob Meyers, the director of energy technology at South Mountain Company, explained in a phone call. Solar necessitates bi-directional flow, as any home or business using solar would

be both generating and using electricity. Although Eversource will accommodate smaller arrays without any additional cost to the homeowner or business, any project over 15kWAC must foot the bill for their own grid upgrades.

Making energy at the Park and Ride in Vineyard Haven. — Ray Ewing

The town of Edgartown had already encountered the same obstacle as Mr. Benjamin.

“All the projects are dealing with this,” said Alan Strahler, chairman of the Edgartown energy committee.

The Edgartown landfill solar array, a planned solar field on the closed Meshacket Road landfill, is expected to generate about 4.7 gigawatt-hours of electricity per year, enough energy to power roughly 150 Massachusetts homes. The town recently signed a contract with the solar developer Ameresco, with construction expected to begin early 2023. Although the project has not yet hit any snags, the town of Edgartown will have to pay for their own grid upgrades once the array is completed.

“It has always been a concern for us,” Mr. Strahler said. “We have no idea how much Eversource is going to could be up to half a million.”

If it seems odd that a 27kWAC setup and an array powering an entire neighborhood would be beholden to the same rule, Mr. Meyers says, that’s because it is odd. As homeowners begin to rely more and more on electricity to power their heat pumps or their cars, Mr. Meyers believes the 15kWAC cutoff has become outdated.

“The regulations have not caught up to the ways electricity is being used today,” Mr. Meyers said. “There’s no middle category.”

To alleviate the burden on homeowners looking to install larger rigs, Mr. Meyers is pushing for state legislation to recognize a third category of systems between 15kwAC and 60kwAC. Systems of that size rarely require costly grid upgrades, Mr. Meyers said, and better reflect the future of electrical usage on the Island.

In a statement sent to the Gazette, Eversource said that the current cost burdens for larger projects are out of Eversource’s control, and that they do not affect 92 per cent of the company’s projects, which are residential projects that largely fall under 15kWAC.

“In some areas like Martha’s Vineyard, the system is reaching its limit for additional power capacity,” the statement read. “Under current state regulation, we are not allowed to build and recover the costs of this added infrastructure to accommodate solar projects, meaning any necessary system upgrades for interconnections must be paid by the project customer that triggers the work.”

“It’s important to note that there is no financial incentive to Eversource to slow down solar development,” Eversource spokesman Chris McKinnon added. “The only incentive is to ensure safety and reliability of electric service to these areas that have reached levels of solar development that have pushed equipment to their limits.”

Eversource is also taking its own initiatives to prepare the Massachusetts grid for solar, chiefly through a capital investment project program currently under review with the Department of Public Utilities. If approved, applicants like Mr. Benjamin would no longer

assume the full cost of any necessary equipment upgrades. Although Eversource expects the DPU to review the proposal in the coming months, when exactly those reviews happen depend entirely on the DPU.

Ann Berwick, a Vineyard seasonal resident, served as chair of the DPU from 2007 to 2015 and is the current head of sustainability in Newton. She also serves on the board of Vineyard Power. The DPU, she said, regulates utility companies like Eversource using a court-like model. Utility companies appeal directly to the three-person board, which issues rulings that can determine precedents for future rulings.

The DPU is deeply consequential to the future of solar, Ms. Berwick said. Unlike other courts, however, the board is entirely appointed by the governor, meaning its decisions can vary widely from administration to administration.

During Ms. Berwick’s tenure, the DPU issued a ruling allowing time-varying rates, which lets consumers pay lower energy rates depending on overall grid usage.

Energy costs are lower when grid usage is lower, Ms. Berwick explained, such as early in the morning when people are asleep or at peak sunlight hours when people are either not using overhead lighting or in their offices. Currently, consumers pay a fixed rate to account for peak usage hours, such as in the evening when everyone comes home from work.

“Time-varying rates would allow consumers to adjust their electricity usage around these schedules and pay accordingly,” Ms. Berwick said, giving them more agency in their electric bills.

Since the makeup of the DPU changed, however, the agency has not observed that ruling.

“It has been completely ignored,” she said.

As Governor Maura Healey continues to name her cabinet, who she selects for the DPU will have significant impacts on solar and on alternative energy as a whole, Ms. Berwick said. But once the governor appoints the commission, she’s not legally allowed to make direct contact with its members.

“You want to make sure the appointees align with your values, but from there they’re on their own,” Ms. Berwick said.

During her candidacy, Gov. Healey presented herself as a champion for clean energy, calling for increased funding to the DPU and creation of a DPU office of public participation to give communities burdened by the effects of climate change a seat at the table. All signs point to her being a friend to solar, Ms. Berwick said.

Until Gov. Healey makes her appointments, the current DPU are essentially lame ducks, Ms. Berwick said, slowing progress on any sitting proposals.

Until then, larger solar projects must dig a little deeper into their pockets.

“I just think in a utopian society, or even a functional government, these investments would come from the state,” Mr. Benjamin said.

Despite these specific challenges, energy experts are quick to point out that on the whole, it’s never been easier to install a home solar system. The state and federal governments have continued to release new incentive and tax-benefit programs for solar systems, including $300 million in tax cuts for clean energy in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in early 2022. The technology itself has also become cheaper and more accessible.

“Over the past 10 years, the cost

of solar equipment has gone down 90 per cent,” Mr. Meyers said. “That’s a huge boon to homeowners.”

Kate Warner, the energy planner at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, is similarly sunny about the future. As of 2022, about nine per cent of the energy used on-Island came from solar, she said, with the goal to reach 25 per cent by 2040.

“[Nine per cent] is very good,” Ms. Warner said. “We’re in great shape.”

After more than 30 years in the solar industry, Ms. Warner sees the current landscape as the product of natural growing pains.

“We’re in the eye of the storm,” she said. “It happened with steam and rail, and then gas and the automotive . . . We’re at one of those historic industrial inflection points.”