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Star Island Seeks To Go Solar, Serve As Energy Example

Star Island – a 43 acre spit of land in the isles of shoals, more than 6 miles off the New Hampshire coast – is installing enough solar panels to power roughly 30 homes and a battery array to back them up.

The island is home to a hotel and conference center run by a non-profit with close ties to the Unitarian Universalist Church. Its efforts to go solar are actually culmination of years of work that some think are a model for how the future of energy could look on the mainland.

Star Island has been an idyllic retreat for conference goers for over a century. Today, island goers can sign up for seminars and symposia on meditation, bird-watching, history of the Isles of Shoals, or many other topics. These retreats draw a community of life-long Star Islanders.

“We’re playing salt and pepper bocce,” explains Ann Shanks-Eter as she and three lifelong friends she’s met here slide salt and pepper shakers back and forth on a table in the dining hall.

“I was gone for 23 years and I came back, and it was people I knew and traditions I still remembered so things don’t change a ton,” she says, before exclaiming, “Nice shot!” as a salt shaker cruises precariously close to the edge of the table.

The Nature of an Island

One thing that will never change is that keeping a hotel and conference center going on an isolated island takes brute force.

In the high season, diesel generators churn 24 hours a day to keep the lights on, filters purify water and pumps run constantly to push it around the island, water from showers, washing dishes and flushing toilets has to be cleaned at a miniature waste-water treatment plant on the edge of the island, and supplies of all kinds have to be shipped to the island on diesel-powered ferries and cargo boats.

“The island has always had, by necessity, an understanding of the limits of our resources,” says the Island’s director of facilities, Jack Farrell, “That’s the nature of an island.”

But making electricity with diesel-powered generators has always been a little contrary to that ethic of conservation.

“At night when people went to bed it was beneficial to leave the lights on because the generator was more happy when it had a full load, so consequently some of our lights don’t even have switches,” Farrell explains.

In recent years the price of diesel has soared driving up the island’s bills, and those who live and work on there began looking in earnest for a more environmentally friendly approach. This summer they plan to begin installing enough solar panels to cover a space a little bigger than a tennis court, and a bank of batteries to store the electricity.

That means everything will be on a switch, and carefully switched off when no one’s in the room. During shoulder seasons – spring and fall – the panels should provide all of the electricity the island needs, and in winter, the island powers down.

But going solar really only scratches the surface of the energy picture on Star Island.


Water, Water, Everywhere

Despite being in a spot surrounded by abundant water, water accounts the three top energy draws on the island: hot-water for washing dishes and laundry, a machine that purifies salt-water for drinking, and the tanks that treat waste-water before flushing it into the ocean.

So years before the work began on the solar panels, the non-profit began investing in changes to water use that would save them money right off the bat. Like a dishwasher that used a third as much water as the old one.

“Something that uses a third of the water, it’s kind of a hat trick for energy, it’s a third of the water supply, a third of the waste water, and a third of the heated water. So it’s a real win-win…” says Farrell who pauses before adding a third “win”.

“A win-win-win I guess.”

Star Island is an idyllic place, and is well supported by its fans and followers.
Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR

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The hotel uses around six thousand gallons a day and can store eight thousand. Potable water comes from a couple of sources.

“We have two reverse osmosis units, those filter salt water to fresh water,” explains Kristen Simard, the island’s environmental service manager, adding the machines take a lot of electricity, so they don’t like to use them.

“We also can take drinking water from boats,” she says explaining that every time the ferry brings guests to the island and lingers at the dock for long enough to disgorge its holds, it can drop off 2,500 gallons of water from the mainland.

The hotel also collects rainwater from the gutters of its main buildings, storing it in a cistern beneath the historic Atlantic House. Some of that water is saved to run the sprinklers in case of a fire. In the past it was used for showers, but the hotel has rerouted its plumbing so that guests only come into contact with potable water.

And finally, the toilets are flushed with salt water.

“We don’t have enough water on this island so it would be a huge waste of our resources to flush our toilets with this hard won water,” says Simard, though that does mean that occasionally they have to scour baby mussels out of their pipes.

So if you’re looking to shrink your energy needs on Star Island, how do you tackle the water problem? First, run the reverse osmosis machines as little as possible.

“Something we’re trying to move into is filtering collected rain water up to drinking water standards,” says Simard, explaining that they hope to be able to drink rainwater by next season.

They’re also installing another water tank in their cargo boat, and last year they started sending certain kinds of laundry to the mainland for cleaning and ironing.

Later this year they plan to begin work on a new waste-water treatment plant, hoping to shave even more energy costs on the discharge side.

Credit Sara Plourde for NHPR

As sustainable as Star Island's systems are, the folks at Star Island Corporation are working to make them even more efficient, making improvements that mean bringing less onto the island, sending less off, and making more use of what's there. This graphic outlines what comes onto the island - either naturally or shipped by boat - what gets sent off, and where everything goes in between. 

Just Like a Chevy Volt

But only so much water conservation can be done, so they are also hoping to use the water they must use in less energy intensive ways.

“Right now we’re in our co-gen plant,” says Marshall Frye, which elicits chuckles from other staff members, since the building in question is a small shed attached to their generator building.

Frye’s official title is Island engineering technician, though he clarifies, “I’m not actually an engineer.” He’s the architect of operation ‘death to boilers,’ which reimagines how the island heats its water.

Frye used a heat exchanger designed for use on a boat to suck the energy out of the exhaust from their generator and use it to heat water. It started running for the first time on the day of our visit. He estimates that whenever the islands generators are running it should provide them all the hot water the island needs, though they have installed some electric and propane water heaters as back-up.

“The big ticket item was getting rid of the boilers. That saved about a third of our diesel usage,” says Frye.

All of these changes together, mean that before the solar panels ever come online, Star Island has cut its diesel use by around a quarter, or 5,000 gallons a year.

Clay Mitchell is a renewable energy guru with Revolution Energy based in Exeter who helped design the island’s new solar set-up. He says the solar panels might be sexy, but the real grunt work of getting the island over its diesel addiction is being done by saving energy.

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR
Eventually Star hopes to be able to purify the byproduct of its waste-water treatment process -- so called 'bio-solids' -- to the point that they can be used as a soil additive for the islands gardens and lawns.

“Getting that load down to the point where it could be managed and produced was the most important part.” Mitchell emphasizes.  

Ultimately, Star and Mitchell decided to not ditch the generators entirely: the batteries and solar will work together with the generators in a hybrid system. Once the work is done in September, electricity on the island will basically function like Chevy’s gas-electric car, the Volt.

“Where the batteries are running the whole system and the solar power is providing power to keep the batteries going,” says Mitchell, “and if the batteries get to a certain level the generators have to kick on to keep the batteries charged up.”

The generators are expected to run only at night during the high season, and not at all the rest of the year.

Unicorns and Bigfoot

This is what’s known as a micro-grid, which is a very vogue term in energy circles right now. The idea is that if each neighborhood had a little electric grid of its own, it would mean fewer people would spend weeks without power after a big storm.

So far though, despite years of talking about them, there aren’t many around.

“I was a conference recently where they referred to micro-grids that are something like unicorns or big foot,” says Suzanne MacDonald the Community Energy Director at the Island institute, which helps islands all up and down New England’s coast reduce energy costs.

“We do have micro-grids, and they are these diesel islands in New England,” she says.

Diesel fueled Island communities pay upwards of 70 cents a kilowatt hour for electricity, which is four to five times what people pay on the mainland.

“The price of energy in particular has really pushed people to think a lot harder about conservation and renewable energy in a way that some people think may happen on the mainland if there was a carbon tax,” says MacDonald.

In other words, if energy prices continue to climb, one can imagine a world in which the rest of the world starts to look like Star Island.

Clay Mitchell says this is starting not with neighborhoods, but in places where power outages have high costs in terms of dollars or lives: big manufacturers or hospitals. These places and islands have to cobble together their systems and sometimes equipment goes up in smoke as it’s pushed past what it was designed for.

“It’s just not something you can go into an electrical store and order your micro-grid system,” says Mitchell.

The World As It Might Ideally Be?

But once it’s all said and done, Star hopes it will be able to replicate the experience of Naushon Island, down near Martha’s Vineyard which is the Forbes family owns, and at the Rock, on Alcatraz. Both installed similar hybrid systems. On Naushon, efficiency and solar have cut diesel use by two thirds.

Credit Paul Elias / Naushon Island
Naushon Island
At Naushon Island, which Jack Farrell characterizes as being "two years ahead" of Star Island, similar work has dramatically reduced diesel consumption. Naushon installed a hybrid array and also gave out new lightbulbs to homes and asked them to purchase new refrigerators.

This work is expensive: they have a hard time coming up with a cents-per-kilowatt-hour number for everything they have done, but the solar array alone on Star Island will cost around million dollars.

But in a place where diesel fuel is delivered at great cost by a barge a few times a year, a project like this makes financial sense, and their project also is driven by their philosophy which is shaped by the island’s peculiar history as a religious retreat.

“This is a special place and it’s here to be a place to imagine the world as it might ideally be, as our vision statement says if I can paraphrase it,” says Jack Farrell, “We take that very seriously.”

For years that adage referred to how people treated each other on the island. For some, going forward, it will also be a vision of what our energy grid could someday be.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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