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  • Tony Pappas

Every 38 years

The year is 1983. The committee has organized its annual House and Garden Tour. This year’s theme is “Solar Energy,” featuring four residences, a business, and the Southeast Lighthouse was thrown in as a bonus! (Tickets were $5 but $4.50 if purchased in advance – and net proceeds of $1,300 were donated to the B.I. Historical Society.) Three of the homes have photovoltaic or hot water panels, and one is super insulated with south-facing windows.

The business is the Mid-Ocean Press, owned and operated by Kim Gaffett. The Mid-Ocean Press building was located (it is no longer in existence at that location) next to St. Andrews Roman Catholic Church on Chapel Street. The building had a south facing roof at a pitch of 45 degrees – perfect for solar panels. These were prominently visible, and indeed served as a showcase for the possibility of solar power. The small business lodged in the rest of the building was known as the Sun Shop, where one could sign up for solar energy powered apparatuses. Nancy Greenaway ran the Sun Shop for about three years. (Kudos to Nancy for supplying the materials documenting this chapter of our history.)

Back to the Mid-Ocean Press, its PV system was composed of a (then) new type of solar cell: “blue Mobil modules, which some visitors have likened to stained glass.” These PV panels provided enough electric power to operate Kim’s presses – which I appreciated at the time being one of her customers. It is believed that this was the first solar powered print shop in the world!

Alas, it would prove ahead of its time and the Sun Shop subsequently went out of business. Over the next three decades, solar technology improved further (and no longer looks like stained glass). Some PV systems were installed on island homes during the decades after 1983, Entech Engineering installing a number of roof and ground-mounted systems. Electricity being supplied directly by the sun was the exception, not the rule.

Then in 2019 the Solar Initiative was born. It reflected a cultural sea change in the appreciation of renewable energy resources. Funded by a generous grant through the Rhode Island Foundation, over the past 18 months or so, about 40 PV systems have been installed in island homes, mostly on the roofs of town/state designated affordable houses. Also worth noting are the 285 PV panels now adorning the roofs at the Block Island Power Company. And solar power is being used to help charge Electric Vehicles, trash compacting receptacles (coming soon to an Old Harbor near you!) and now heat pumps, too.

Some ideas may take a while to gestate, but the good ones will resurface. And we are glad that we have lived long enough to see it!

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