Toward 500 Solar Roofs

West Tisbury architect Kate Warner, director of the Vineyard Energy Project, and a group of homeowners informally calling themselves the Solar Corps are trying to change how we see the light. As part of the national Million Solar Roofs Program, the goal is to have the Vineyard supply 500 of those million solar roofs by 2010. The count as of August was 69 solar hot-water systems and 87 solar-electric systems, bringing the Island total to 156 solar roofs (any significant solar-powered system counts as a solar roof). Last year the Vineyard effort earned it the National Best Progress Award for 2005 from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Though solar power has been around since the 1960s, only recently have solar panels begun to unfold themselves all over the Island, thanks in large part to Kate and the Vineyard Energy Project. The advocates figure that if more people knew what solar systems look like, how they work, how small some of them are, and how easy it is to retrofit existing structures, more folks would install them. That would mean more people would see and understand them, and so on – until by 2010, some 500 solar roofs on the Island would be no big deal.

So Kate and Susan Wasserman of West Tisbury – who helped organize the corps – raised money and found fourteen public locations where they could set up demonstration projects. These range from the cash register at the West Tisbury landfill to the hot-water system at the Menemsha bathhouse to the electrical system at the Steamship Authority terminal in Vineyard Haven to the restrooms at the Gay Head Cliffs in Aquinnah to the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury. “People see these and see what solar looks like,” says Susan. “They see it’s not intrusive. In fact, they fall in love with the blue color of the tinted glass that captures the light.”

Susan’s own solar panels are mounted on the ground beside her vegetable garden. They generate one-third of the electricity for her Victorian home in West Tisbury. Visitors get an idea about how solar might work in their own homes. “It becomes understandable to them once they see it,” says Susan. “A lot of people associate solar with new construction, but that’s not necessarily the case. It can be an attractive addition to almost any landscape or architecture.” Momentum is building. “In the beginning I was on my own,” says Kate. “Now a week doesn’t go by without someone calling.”

Still, there’s plenty to be done. Kate is trying to increase the number of Vineyard architects, builders, electricians, plumbers, and wiring inspectors who know the technology. “We’re working on having the infrastructure in place so it doesn’t feel like a fly-by-night organization,” says Kate, “but something tried and true.”  

Islanders of all types choose solar these days. Some investors make financial sacrifices – at least initially – to buy a system; others are well off. There are tax credits and incentives of all sorts to help defray installation costs. You can find solar systems powering funky Island houses, elaborate estates, run-of-the-mill ranches, and swimming pools. What you find at all these places are owners who smile on sunny days.

More than once, Kate has been in Cronig’s Market when someone shouted excitedly across the aisles to her, “It’s a seven-kilowatt-hour day today!” She knows a West Tisbury woman in her late 80s who’s so in tune with her system that she can look at the sun and know exactly how many watts it’s generating without checking her meter.

When Kate first put in her own solar panels back in 1998, she would watch the meter like crazy (a common obsession with new solar owners). She would say to her boyfriend, I just made this much power. Then later, I just made this much power. After a while, he asked, “Is your mood directly tied to how many kilowatt hours your house is generating?” And Kate replied, “That’s a trick question, because everyone is happy when the sun is shining.”

Solar users, says Susan, love to compare how well their systems are doing. When her solar panels make more power than her house needs to
run the refrigerator, appliances, lights, and office equipment, the excess energy goes back to the grid and the power company credits her account. “It’s pretty fun to see the electric meter spin backward,” she says. “But it spins backward much more slowly than forward.”

When Susan had her solar panels installed a few years ago, the wisdom was that it would take fifteen years for the system to pay back the investment. Since then, however, electricity rates have risen on three occasions, so her savings accelerate with each jump.

The payback is good, but that’s not Susan’s main motivation. “My attitude is that those who can, should,” she says. “The reason to do it is bigger than dollars and cents – things like how it affects the environment and the state of the world, how it affects the electricity supply, and helping to make the solar components readily available to others by giving manufacturers an incentive to make more efficient and cost-effective products – all that has a bearing that isn’t added into the numbers.”

Sarah and Ted Howes in Aquinnah went solar for another reason: to have an emergency backup system. When the power goes out at their end of the Island, as it frequently does, they don’t even know it. They’ll be going about their business in their solar-lit home, look across the pond, and
wonder why it’s suddenly so dark over there.

Right now, the Island depends on the mainland for 99.9 percent of its electric power, and the underwater cable that carries electricity from power plants on the Cape is fast reaching capacity. The solar-roofs project is one part of a larger ten-year energy plan to help reduce demand and move toward energy independence. When the goal of 500 solar roofs is reached, the sun will generate one percent of the Island’s power.

“There’s a campaign on the Vineyard for everyone to switch incandescent bulbs in their house to compact fluorescents,” says Susan. “Each little thing doesn’t make very much difference, but together they add up to a lot.”

Visit for more information on solar installation, tax credits, and subsidies. If you have site-specific solar questions after reviewing the web page, contact Kate Warner at or 508-693-3002.