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Martha's Vineyard Running Entirely on Renewable Energy? Town Meeting Voters May Get to Decide

Eve Zuckoff
Marc Rosenbaum delivers a talk he calls: "Beyond Fossil Fuel Homes," at the West Tisbury Library on Jan. 28.

On a cold Tuesday afternoon last month, nearly 60 people filed into the West Tisbury Library on Martha’s Vineyard.

“You came just for the biscotti, right?” joked the featured speaker, Marc Rosenbaum, an environmental building consultant.  

Rosenbaum is delivering talks across the island as part of an ambitious effort called “100 Percent Renewable Martha’s Vineyard.” He calls his talk: “Beyond Fossil Fuel Homes.”

“First of all, why do we even care about this?” he began. “Why are we trying to get fossil fuels out of our buildings and in general reduce energy use? Well...”
In 2018, the island emitted around 606 million pounds of carbon dioxide, according to an analysis by the Vineyard Sustainable Energy Committee.

“That's a major load,” said Rob Hannemann, chair of the committee.

Hannemann and Rosenbaum are among those leading the push to get the whole island—from homes, to cars, to ferries—powered entirely by renewable energy in the next 20 years.  

To be successful, Martha’s Vineyard would need to scale up its generation of—and dependence on—wind and solar power. Currently, only 5.2 percent of the island’s energy comes from renewable sources.

But at town meetings this spring, Vineyard residents will vote on measures calling for the island to go 100 percent renewable by 2040, which would mean ending the use of fossil fuels. 

While island activists gain support for their climate mitigation plan, the state Senate and Gov. Charlie Baker recently committed to make Massachusetts reach “net zero” by 2050, meaning the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere is no more than the amount taken out.

But the problem with net zero, Rosenbaum says, is that it “doesn't cover everything.”

Increasingly, climate activists say net zero plans that rely on efforts like tree-planting and wetland restoration to offset carbon emissions aren’t enough. Zero carbon, or the complete elimination of fossil fuel sources, needs to be the goal, they say.

“I would not have said that it's possible to achieve this goal [of 100% renewables] had I had in my head the technology availability of even five years ago,” Hannemann said. 

The Vineyard Sustainable Energy Committee’s first step was tracking the energy use of the island’s three major sectors.

Credit Vineyard Sustainable Energy Committee
This graph breaks down carbon emissions released by Martha's Vineyard's three most energy intensive sectors in 2018.

"It turns out that transportation is about 45 percent of our energy use on the island,” he said. 

Home heating and electricity make up the remaining 55 percent; they’re split pretty evenly.

When it comes to home heating, islanders have found, there’s a solution already at hand.   

“So a package that gets talked a lot about these days is an electric heat pump,” said former architect and climate activist Kate Warner. 

Heat pumps use electricity to extract and deliver heat from the outside air, even at zero degrees. The process can also be reversed, so heat pumps can cool homes as well.

If every home on the island used a heat pump instead of a furnace, the island could eventually reduce its carbon footprint by a whopping 28 percent. 

“It may feel like a bleeding-edge technology to you because it's the first time you've heard about it,” said Newell Isbell Shinn, of the Martha’s Vineyard Builders Association. “But if you look at all these other places and all these other houses—how it's been done and it works—the benefits do speak for themselves.”

Among the benefits, he says, is the cost. 

“[It] can actually be a cost neutral thing,” he said, comparing to the price of installing a heat pump to a traditional fossil fuel sysem. In fact, he says, heat pumps often cost "substantially" less.   

Still, supporters of 100% Renewable Martha’s Vineyard are quick to say no one piece of technology is going to solve a problem as complicated as island-wide energy.  

“But this initial step is, like, let's decide as a community, ‘The goal is to do this,’ and let's show that we can do it,” said Ben Robinson, an architect and member of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

Robinson says, frankly, aiming for 100 percent renewables is aspirational. Even reaching 95 percent would be a success.

“If somebody’s got a 1940 Ford and they're like, ‘Look, this is my car. I drive it on Sundays….’ You know, I don't think that's gonna be what kills us,” he said. 

Martha’s Vineyard isn’t alone in its quest to go 100% renewable. Other communities in Massachusetts—including Cambridge, Lowell, and Amherst—have similar goals.

But the Vineyard is different. 

“The thing that makes the Vineyard unique is we can measure our progress… because we can measure how much fuel comes over here,” Kate Warner said. 

Sometimes being on an island can mean isolation, but, by the same token, Vineyarders’ potential to control their energy future sets them apart. 

And, Ben Robinson says, the potential for climate catastrophe does, too.  

“The problem when you're talking about climate change is we’re up against a time clock,” Robinson said. “There's a race that's already started and we're still sort of fiddling around at the starting line trying to tie our shoes.”

He hopes the first step will be each of the island’s six towns voting in favor of 100% Renewable Martha's Vineyard this spring.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.