(TNS) -- CUTTYHUNK — This island community reached a milestone this summer as it produced more than half of the island's electricity with solar panels and storage batteries, according to Paul Elias of the Gosnold Electric Light Commission.
The amount of solar energy being produced on-island has passed 50 percent, and will increase further when the summer residents begin going to their mainland homes, leaving behind just the 75 residents counted by the U.S. Census as year-round.
A spokesman for the solar contractor, Peter Howe, told The Standard-Times that further increasing the solar capacity to meet all of summer's needs, 100 percent, would require building so much capacity that it would increase to an enormous oversupply from September to May, not to mention so many additional solar panels and batteries.
Right now, this "microgrid" system will cover 80 percent of the off-season demand, Howe said.
"We think this hits the sweet spot of a most efficient system. It's the optimal balance between solar and diesel," he said.
Elias wrote in an email to The Standard-Times that the project's total cost was about $2.4 million, and after competitive bidding the project contract was awarded to Solar Design Associates of Harvard, Mass.
Of the $2.4 million, a total of $2.145 million was a USDA grant from the Rural Electrical Administration, $100,000 was form other grants, $30,000 from state solar support money, and around $100,000 came from the town's stabilization funds.
That funding is being helped by aggressive conservation steps, Elias told The Standard-Times.
With diesel power and rates of about 60 cents a kilowatt hour, conservation has dramatic effects. "We took many conservation measures that cut power consumption by about 20 percent and therefore cut revenue by 20 percent," Elias said.
"The savings in fuel use will cover that drop in revenue and then some more. We expect that off-season rates will drop furthest, but we are waiting for twelve months of service on the new system to reassess rates," he said. Estimates are that this system will cut diesel consumption by 30,000 gallons this year.
Microgrid projects are unusual but are entering the picture for place like Cuttyhunk, which is located 14 miles south of New Bedford across Buzzards Bay and is difficult to supply with mainland power.
For years the town had exclusively used a diesel generator, as have other islands. But the generators are noisy, expensive energy-consuming and high maintenance. Now the technology exists to produce solar power all year long, in the daytime, and in the night with lithium-ion batteries that have the storage capacity that's needed.
Elias said that the state's help will pay for a replacement battery in 12-16 years. "The lifespan of the batteries is 12-16 years," Elias said. "The lifespan of the power electronics should be 20 years with some upgrades. Lifespan of the racking and panels may be 40 years."
According to a press release issued Wednesday, "The island, which has 174 electric meters, had previously relied solely on diesel-powered generation with fuel delivered by barge for all of its electricity.
"The new Cuttyhunk microgrid comprises 1,020 solar panels with maximum output of 351.9 kilowatts, plus 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electric storage."
In a statement, Solar Design Associates President Steven J. Strong said: "Solar plus storage is clearly the next frontier for renewable energy, and the Cuttyhunk project validates the extraordinary benefits this innovative approach can deliver for cost, reliability, and sustainability at community scale."
Five years ago, Cuttyhunk's neighboring village, Naushon, located on an adjacent Elizabeth island, installed a smaller microgrid system. Cuttyhunk's went on-line this past January.
©2017 The Standard-Times, New Bedford, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.