Homegrown Forum Set to Tackle Energy Conservation for Future

By IAN FEIN

The total energy bill for Martha's Vineyard this year will approach $65 million, according to a study conducted by an energy consultant this winter.

And although more solar roofs are appearing on the Island landscape, the consultant found that less than one-tenth of one per cent of the Vineyard's energy is produced on the Island. The rest comes from the mainland, either by boat or underwater cable.

With the economic and environmental costs of fossil fuels soaring, some Vineyard residents are looking to narrow that gap.

Energy conservation will be the topic in an upcoming forum set for May 7 as part of the third annual Energy Day. The forum will be held from 10 a.m. to noon at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury. The event is co-sponsored by Cape Light Compact, the Martha's Vineyard Commission and the Vineyard Energy Project - an Island nonprofit that formed two years ago to encourage sustainable energy choices on the Vineyard and inspire other communities to do the same.

"It's quite clear that something is going to happen - and either we plan for it and do something forward thinking or wait to see what happens," said Kate Warner, founder of the organization. "I'd rather us be prepared."

The Vineyard Energy Project this spring authored a nonbinding energy resolution to work toward becoming a Renewable Energy Island. The resolution passed at all five annual town meetings this month, and will go before Aquinnah voters on May 10.

To develop a formal plan to find ways to work toward that goal, the Vineyard Energy Project last fall hired Christine Donovan, an energy planner from Stowe, Vt.

"We didn't feel we had the expertise to determine what our best energy resources are and what the most cost effective projects would be," Ms. Warner said. "We needed help."

Ms. Donovan is writing an energy action plan, due this summer, that will determine specific ways the Island can increase its energy sustainability within the next 10 years. She spent the winter studying the Vineyard's energy resources with a team of consultants, and will present some of her findings - along with a draft of the plan - at the May 7 forum.

In an attempt to get feedback from the Vineyard community before the final plan is inked, Ms. Donovan will lead a discussion with the audience about the specific ideas and proposed projects.

Transportation is one of the areas Ms. Donovan studied, and she found that it accounts for almost half of the Island's total energy use. The plan will address ways the Vineyard can cut down its transportation energy costs, possibly by encouraging more car-sharing programs or bicycle routes. Ms. Donovan will also discuss using more biodiesel fuel for the Island buses, trucks and ferries, and possibly turning construction debris or parts of the state forest into a sustainable source of biomass.

Other energy sources identified in the plan include solar and wind power - possibly by installing more small turbines, like the one at South Mountain Company, at farms across the Island. Ms. Donovan will also recommend that the Vineyard adopt policies to make Island homes and buildings more energy efficient.

Ms. Warner admits that she does not know what the plan will look like, or how it would be enacted or enforced, if at all. She pointed to Aspen, Colo. - another seasonal community with lots of development and large homes - where progressive local energy initiatives have taken hold.

Four years ago Aspen enacted stricter green building codes and developed a renewable energy mitigation program, where property owners with large homes or outdoor hot tubs are required to either install renewable energy systems in their homes or pay an extra tax into an energy fund that promotes other sustainable projects in town. The fund has already raised $3 million over the last four years.

Ms. Warner hopes that the Vineyard might follow Aspen's lead. As high-profile tourist destinations with many seasonal residents, both places have the ability to serve as a model for the rest of the country.

Randy Udall, the director of a nonprofit energy group in the Colorado valley, said the Aspen experiment is working.

"The steps Aspen has taken in the last 10 years have had much broader outcomes than we initially envisioned," he said in a brief telephone interview this week. "The nation has been on an energy holiday for many years, and we want to build a consensus to begin moving in a more self-sustaining direction. America is still trying to bring gas in from around the world through mega projects, but I'm intrigued by our opportunity to do things more locally."

Mr. Udall, whose father Maurice was a U.S. congressman for 30 years and one-time presidential candidate, said the political momentum needed to make energy changes on the local level is within reach. The building code changes in Aspen passed unanimously.

"If a community has a vision of where it wants to go, it's possible to get the political will to go there," Mr. Udall said.

Following Ms. Donovan's presentation at the forum, Cape and Islands Sen. Rob O'Leary will discuss legislative measures to enact on either the local or state levels to promote energy sustainability.

Senator O'Leary filed an energy efficiency bill last year, which he hopes will make it through the state legislature this summer. If approved, the bill would require that home and commercial appliances meet certain efficiency standards before they are made available in Massachusetts. Mr. O'Leary estimated the bill would save consumers $1.9 billion over the next 20 years and reduce the state's needs for electricity.

One of the most outspoken state senators against the offshore wind farm proposed for Nantucket Sound, Mr. O'Leary did not deny the irony surrounding his role as a key speaker at a renewable energy forum.

"Of course there's a certain irony, but my opposition to the wind farm is because I think it will have an enormous impact and a modest benefit," he said. "Whereas things like this bill will have a big impact and will happen years sooner than the wind farm - even in a best-case scenario - with a much, much, much smaller public cost at any level."