Energy Conservation Lagging on Vineyard

By IAN FEIN

Climate change has been at the top of nearly every political agenda this fall.

The incoming Massachusetts governor heralded energy reform throughout his campaign, and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill have pledged that legislation to curb global warming will be a top priority in the coming year. Elsewhere in the world, the United Nations earlier this month assembled a climate change conference in Nairobi only days after a landmark British government report spelled out the global economic crisis that will occur if countries do not control their greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.

Here on the Vineyard - an Island more susceptible to fluctuations in energy prices and where the effects of a warming earth, such as sea level rise, will be felt quite strongly - government leaders have been virtually silent on the issue. What little has been done on the Island pales in comparison to many other communities across the nation that have enacted local initiatives to reduce carbon emissions.

In the first such significant step on the Vineyard, Aquinnah selectman James Newman this September proposed a town zoning bylaw that would have required new homes over a certain size to include renewable energy sources such as solar panels or wind turbines. The proposed regulation attracted some quiet opposition based mostly on aesthetics, but when the bylaw came up for discussion at a special town meeting last month, Aquinnah voters failed on three different occasions to attract enough residents to even debate the issue.

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Mr. Newman this week expressed frustration at the lack of support and attention the initiative received both in town and elsewhere on the Island, where he had hoped it would spark a larger public dialogue.

"People out here seem to care, but when it comes to standing up and voting or acting on something, they're not there," said Mr. Newman, who with his wife recently installed solar panels on their own Aquinnah home. "The indifference to me is mind boggling."

Dating back to at least the 1970s, the Vineyard has long had its share of creative homeowners using alternative energy sources to keep themselves off the grid. Solar panels have seen a slow but steady growth in recent years, with now more than 160 such systems on the Vineyard. A residential wind turbine went up in Oak Bluffs last month, and the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School expects to install a turbine later this winter.

West Tisbury architect Kate Warner - who founded the nonprofit Vineyard Energy Project and owned the first hybrid car on the Island - said the Vineyard as a whole is still addressing the energy challenge better than the average community in the country. But given its liberal leanings, the beauty of the Island and the depth of passion for causes, she thought the Vineyard would have been a leader in the renewable energy movement.

"On the Island, with such a low elevation and a reliance on boats, I was sure that everyone would want to jump on board and help out," Ms. Warner said. "But I've found it hard to get people interested in the global warming issue because it's too overwhelming, too depressing, and too long term," she continued.

"All of these things we are doing are steps in the right direction, but we need to do so much more to meet the challenge. We are not moving at the rate of the urgency of the problem, which is quickly going to disrupt our quality of life."

At this point, most Vineyard residents are familiar with the concept of climate change, also referred to as global warming. The burning of fossil fuels add gases into the atmosphere that create a greenhouse effect, trapping heat and raising the overall temperature of the earth.

While the exact effects of the overall warming are still unknown, large glaciers and ice caps are already melting and will result in a substantial rise in the level of the oceans. Widely published models of sea level rise put much of downtown Edgartown underwater sometime this century, and many scientists also predict that climatic changes will lead to increased frequency of extreme weather events like hurricanes. Reports from around the world suggest that the warming effects may be happening faster than many expected.

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Because of the scale of the problem, the Vineyard - even if it ceased emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow - would not have any noticeable impact on the global warming trend. But some suggest that as a popular vacation destination in the United States - which is by far the largest contributor of greenhouse gasses - an energy innovative Vineyard could have a lasting symbolic effect for the country.

Other energy advocates note that efforts to reduce emissions are the same steps the Island should be taking anyway to prepare for the anticipated end of cheap energy era. By improving efficiency and producing more renewable energy here on the Island, Vineyard towns could create more stable prices and help ensure adequate supply, with an overall benefit to the local economy.

Compiled by the Vineyard Energy Project and Martha's Vineyard Commission, among other sources, the numbers about Island energy use are startling:

Less than one-tenth of one per cent of the Vineyard's energy is produced on the Island, with the rest coming from the mainland - either by boat or underwater cable. According to estimates, the overall Island energy bill last year was roughly $65 million.

Electricity rates for Cape Cod and Vineyard residents are almost twice the state average right now. Between 1999 and 2001, Island electric consumption outpaced population growth. Meanwhile, the Vineyard is building about 200 houses per year, many of which are increasing in size. The four cables connected to the mainland approach maximum capacity each summer and range in age between 10 and 20 years old. When a cable fails, the electric company relies on five diesel-powered generators, two of which date back to the 1940s.

While electricity represents less than a fifth of total Vineyard energy use, transportation accounts for almost half. Public transportation on the Island has improved dramatically over the last decade - Martha's Vineyard Regional Transit Authority ridership increased from less than 100,000 in 1994 to more than 775,000 in 2004, and saw a seven per cent increase last year after four years of relatively flat numbers - but Vineyard residents are still heavily reliant on large personal vehicles with poor gas mileage. Between 1991 and 2000 the number of registered vehicles on the Island jumped 75 per cent (from 12,800 to 22,350), while the year-round population grew only 25 per cent. Gasoline prices on the Vineyard are among the highest in the nation and account for a third of overall Island energy use.

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When fuel costs rise, so do the prices of most goods shipped on and off the Island. Between its Vineyard and Nantucket routes, the Steamship Authority last year burned roughly 2.7 million gallons of diesel fuel, at a total cost of $4.8 million. As a cost-cutting measure, the boat line slowed the speed of some of its ferry runs and - through the first nine months of 2006 - used 96,000 gallons less than it had during the same time period the year before. But with an increase in overall fuel prices, the Steamship Authority still spent almost $500,000 more on diesel than it did during the first nine months of 2005. Ferry runs represent roughly 10 per cent of Vineyard-generated carbon emissions.

Since all of the Vineyard town landfills were closed, the vast majority of solid waste is shipped off Island at a significant economic and energy cost. The transportation of waste represented one out of every seven Steamship Authority freight trips in 2000, and the total amount of solid waste was increasing steadily - from 14,200 tons in 1998 to 18,200 tons in 2002. A regional composting facility on the Vineyard could reduce the amount of waste trucked off Island by more than 5,000 tons per year.

In the spring of 2005, voters in all six Vineyard towns endorsed a nonbinding energy resolution to work toward becoming a renewable energy Island. Among other things, voters pledged to promote energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources by revising town zoning bylaws and Martha's Vineyard Commission regulations.

The Vineyard Energy Project later that summer released a ten-year energy action plan, authored by a professional energy consultant in Vermont who analyzed Island energy resources and listed detailed ways the Vineyard could improve its overall energy picture within the decade. Ms. Warner traveled around the Island and formally presented the plan to members of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, Dukes County Commission, and all six boards of selectmen and planning boards.

In the 14 months since, some towns have taken minor steps toward increasing the efficiency of their municipal buildings, and both Tisbury and West Tisbury (the only two Island towns with energy committees) are exploring the possibility of installing municipal turbines. But aside from the attempted Aquinnah bylaw, no other Island town or commission have pursued any substantive energy policy changes.

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As a regional planning and regulatory agency with unique powers granted by the Massachusetts state legislature, the Martha's Vineyard Commission likely possesses the greatest ability to affect energy reform across the Island. Ms. Warner in September 2005 gave the commission 11 specific recommendations to follow up on the energy action plan, but since then the commission has moved forward on only one - adopting an energy policy, which it formalized in May. The commission has still not created accompanying guidelines for development projects that come before them, however, and only one commission member, John Best of Tisbury, has consistently asked applicants to address energy use in their public hearing presentations.

Mr. Best, who did not run for reelection and is set to leave the commission at the end of the year, said this week that his fellow commission members support increased vigilance over energy use, but that someone at the planning agency needed to remind them of the issue. He suggested that the commission should have a staff member or hired consultant to advise them on energy decisions.

"Energy should be front and center on everything," Mr. Best said. "It needs to be on every application, and we cannot keep letting people off the hook."

He also noted that the commission only reviews the limited number of developments of regional impact (DRIs) that are sent to the board, and that the commission should follow up on the Vineyard Energy Project recommendation that it work more closely with the towns to craft Islandwide energy regulations. "We need to create energy bylaws and bringing everybody into the fold," Mr. Best said. "We can't impose this only on the people who come before us."

Perhaps the most progressive idea in the energy action plan was a recommendation to establish an Islandwide energy district of critical planning concern (DCPC). Supporters of the energy DCPC concept believe that an overlay district would allow the Vineyard to craft initiatives like those in other states (including California, Oregon and Colorado) which tax homeowners based on their energy usage, and then transfer the funds toward renewable energy projects and other efficiency measures.

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Such regulations would likely not be allowed under current Massachusetts state law, but through the unique powers of the Martha's Vineyard Commission critical districts allow towns to adopt zoning regulations that otherwise would not be permitted in the commonwealth.

West Tisbury selectman John Early, who as a general contractor has built some of the larger homes on the Island, expressed interest in the energy DCPC idea when Ms. Warner presented the plan to the town board. A former longtime commission member, Mr. Early said the district would allow the Island to address the growing trend of high energy consumption.

Ms. Warner acknowledged that the critical district concept would be controversial when she presented the plan to the commission and town boards last year, and recommended that they simply explore the idea instead of formally endorsing it.

But in the last 14 months there has been virtually no public dialogue on the energy DCPC, at either the local or regional level.

For his part, Mr. Newman pledged to present his proposed zoning bylaw again at the next Aquinnah town meeting, and urged leaders in other Island towns to follow suit.

"Selectmen need to be agents of change. I really do believe that," Mr. Newman said this week. "We all have to do something in the end here, because we're facing a problem that will impinge on us all."