The Working Waterfront

Islesboro recharges for energy independence

Fourth annual energy conference focuses on practical steps

Tom Groening
Posted 2018-10-09
Last Modified 2018-10-09

Technological innovations like electric cars, photovoltaic panels, air-source heat pumps, and micro-grids can stir up a lively discussion at a gathering like the fourth annual Islesboro Energy Conference, hosted on the island on Sept. 8 by the community’s energy team. But organizer Toby Martin was more interested in the practical.

“It’s not what you say, it’s what you do that counts,” he said at the opening of the conference, and explained that after years of thinking and talking about energy challenges and frontiers, he is most interested in action at the household and island levels.

Martin said he challenges people: “Think deeply about what your commitment is. What habits are you willing to change?”

As it turns out, islanders are committed to cutting energy costs and consumption, as became apparent during panel discussions with members of the Islesboro Energy Team.

Melissa Olson, the island school librarian, reported that solar panels that would provide up to 40 percent of the building’s electricity needs have been approved for installation. With a grant provided by the Island Institute (publisher of The Working Waterfront), the school replaced most of its incandescent lightbulbs with low-energy LED bulbs.

Jim Roberts reported on working with town officials on several fronts, including considering:

  • replacing streetlights with the LED version;
  • conducting an energy audit of the town office;
  • establishing an electric-vehicle charging station on the island;
  • replacing older town vehicles with electric versions;
  • establishing a solar array.

Sandy Oliver talked about small but crucial commitments like bringing one’s own fork, spoon, knife, and coffee cup to conferences and other events at which food and coffee are served to eliminate the use of plastic utensils.

“Maybe it’s time to consider a carbon-free Islesboro,” said Oliver, citing the state of California’s recent commitment to moving toward that status.

The practical and theoretical merged with conference speaker John Luft of ReVision Energy. Luft noted that Maine has the highest per capita consumption of oil and gas in New England, burning 307 million BTUs annually. Purchasing these fuels results in $5 billion leaving the state each year, he said.

A big part of ReVision’s business is installing photovoltaic panels, and Luft explained how Germany has taken big steps toward looking to the sun for energy. On a day in May of 2016, 100 percent of the country’s electricity was generated by renewable sources.

Maine gets 33 percent more sun than Germany, he said.

Electricity, “as the fuel of choice,” Luft said, leads to choices like air-source heat pumps, for heating homes and domestic hot water, and electric vehicles.

Luft showed a slide of a New York City street scene in 1890 with horse and buggies dominating. A second slide from a decade later showed a New York street jammed with Model Ts. The point, he said, is that transformative, new technology can be adopted quickly.

Another speaker, Kathleen Meil of the Acadia Center, a nonprofit that works on energy policy throughout New England and New York, echoed Luft’s observation, saying “Maine is leading the region in heat pump adoption.”

In her keynote address, the Island Institute’s Suzanne MacDonald, just back from a visit to Denmark’s Samsø Island, quoted Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who said, “Life is best understood by looking back.” But MacDonald said that in the energy realm, now was the time to look forward.

In 1997, Samsø won a financial prize to become free of fossil fuels, and today, all of its electric and heating needs are served by solar, wind, and biomass production. Transportation is the next frontier, with islanders working to convert vehicles to electric power.

The island of 3,700 people is aiming to achieve fossil-fuel free status by 2030.

Consistent with the theme that emerged during the conference, MacDonald said rather than focus on kilowatts and BTUs, those working for energy independence should focus on three approaches:

  • Develop a brave and break-through vision for what should be achieved.
  • Invest in the group as “evolutionary” leaders: “We need to be at our best before we go out,” she said.
  • Invest in the movement; create space for others to be at their best and find common goals with other groups.

MacDonald’s final charge to the islanders was to “leverage the future of this place.”