Breathing easy: Improving the air quality in your home

By Martha Shaw

With winter approaching, the joy of keeping all the windows open to let fresh air in our homes is behind us. We begin sealing up our houses, latching storm windows and applying weather stripping to prevent heat loss before cold weather sets in.

When we think about weatherizing our homes, we should also consider how best to refresh the air inside. Indoor air quality (IAQ) is basic to human health, particularly for the very young and elderly who are more susceptible to the effects of dirty air and who typically spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors. Even in crowded, industrial cities, outside air is usually much cleaner than the air inside, and the Island is no exception.

“Though houses are more energy efficient and built tighter than ever before, the natural exchange of air with the outdoors through leaky windows is less,” says Jim Hart of Hart Company Plumbing and Heating, Inc. in Vineyard Haven.

As a result, emissions from detergents, pesticides, furnishings, gas appliances, oil burners, paints, toxic construction materials, and radon can get trapped indoors. Also, unwanted flora and fauna like fungi, algae, pollen grains, viruses, bacteria, and dust mites can flourish inside our homes. Combined, the concentration of these pollutants can be up to a hundred times higher than outside air, particularly when indoor air is re-circulated for an extended period of time.
“Heat ducts and clothes dryers can become moist breeding grounds for mites and mold and it’s very important to clean or replace the filters,” says Mr. Hart. “We open up heat registers and find dead insects, mouse droppings, animal hair, dander and other things that you don’t want getting into the air you breathe.”

Fireplaces, wood and coal stoves, and kerosene heaters can also be a major source of indoor air pollution. Mr. Hart suggests tuning up gas stoves and furnaces every few years to reduce dirty fuel emissions, to get air ducts cleaned, and to vacuum out electric heaters before they are turned on.

According to John Abrams of South Mountain Company in West Tisbury, who specializes in energy efficient building, some homeowners install mechanical ventilation, the best of which is an energy-efficient heat recovery ventilator (HRV). An HRV filters and preheats fresh outside air in exchange for stale indoor air.

Proper ventilation is key

Radon is a natural gas, yet dangerous when high levels of it are trapped inside. It is found in most homes at very low levels. Originating naturally in earth and rocks, and even groundwater, it seeps in from beneath the house through cracks in concrete and flooring and through floor drains. Radon becomes a problem when it gets trapped without proper ventilation. It is estimated that prolonged exposure to radon is the number two cause of lung cancer. Fortunately, testing for radon, as well as getting rid of it, is relatively simple. One good source for finding out more about radon and for ordering test kits is

Ventilate well when using paints, paint stripper, glue, caulking, welding tools, and sanding equipment, or wait for a nice day and do these projects outside or with the windows open. Cleaning dete and bug sprays, mildew fighters, and dust busters may be advertised to get your house cleaner than clean, but don’t be fooled. Many of thes products are unregulated and untested in terms of their health risks. You can find natural alternatives specializing in nontoxic products and homemade remedies. If you hire professionals to clean your home, let them know that you prefer natural products, and provide them with your own supplies if they aren’t offered. You’ll spare your septic system and the Island’s soil and groundwater of toxic chemicals.

Prevent mold growth

Mold growth is usually obvious to spot in your house, but there are invisible spores that are equally toxic. Because they are invisible and airborne, they pose a higher risk to people who are susceptible to respiratory disease. These spores contain allergens whether they are dead, alive, or dormant, and they need to be physically removed, preferably by a vacuum. Mold mitigation professionals will isolate the area, set the spores into suspension, and suck them up through powerful air scrubbers known as air “polishers.” In some cases, sheetrock and other affected surfaces must be replaced.

To help prevent mold growth, keep household humidity below 50 percent. Make sure rain and melting snow are directed away from your house and your rain spouts are operating effectively. During the winter, vents in the basement, bathrooms and above the kitchen stove should be run frequently to avoid moisture from building up on walls, floors, ceilings, wall cavities, and tile grout. If you see condensation on pipes in your home, you have moisture, a breeding ground for mold. The easiest way to detect mold and mildew is a musty smell, which is of microscopic life side your home. Ac- Donald Cronig of Beacon Home Inspections in Vineyard Haven, up to 20 percent of the air pollution in a home comes from the basement through stairwells, laundry chutes, and other openings. He recommends a good dehumidifier and a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air filter) in the basement to extract mites, spores, chemicals, and other pollutants, and personally uses IQAir Health-Pro Plus in his own home. Unfortunately, Beacon Home Inspections is no longer in the business of indoor air quality and the Vineyard does not appear to have a full-time IAQ professional working on the Island. One off-Island resource is Nauset Environmental Services, and another is the Indoor Air Quality Association at Also reference the book, “The Mold Survival Guide for Your Home and Your Health,” by Jeff and Connie May.

The good news is that winter doesn’t last forever and there are plenty of warm days here and there to air out the house. The best way to prevent toxic build-up in your home is to choose products and building materials wisely and take precautionary steps before indoor pollutants become highly concentrated and out of control. That way, your whole family can breathe easier. Martha Shaw of Oak Bluffs specializes in environmental issues and is the founder of Earth Advertising, an agency that promotes the use of earth-friendly products.

To find out more about energy efficiency and renewable energy projects on the Island, visit This article is sponsored by the Vineyard Energy Project through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The Vineyard Energy Project promotes sustainable energy choices through education, outreach, and renewable energy projects. The author, Martha Shaw, is a member of the Vineyard Energy Project’s advisory board. The Times publishes these columns as a service to its readers.

The sun powers up Agricultural Hall

By Martha Shaw (Martha’s Vineyard, MA)

Just in time for the Agricultural Fair, a new solar electric system on the roof of the Ag Society’s main barn is now providing the building with free energy from the sun. Installing the solar panels and hooking them up was a community project involving four of the Island’s electrical companies, which volunteered to help out while getting free training on the job.

Matt Larsen of MV Electricians led the effort, which included their own and local electricians from Berube Electric, Powers Electric, and Ronald Pine Electric, with help from Larry Schubert, who installed the mounting racks for the solar panels.

“Being on one job, hand in hand, was fun,” said Matt. “It would have taken a day and a half with two people, but we had it up and running in 5 hours, joking around the whole time. The meter was spinning and we were making electricity.”

“It was nice to see all the different electricians pull together,” said Eleanor Neubert, who is the Agricultural Fair Manager, Secretary to the Board of Trustees, and the one who books the events at the Ag Hall.

The idea of solar energy on the building has been percolating for years, but the Board of Trustees was waiting for the time to be right, according to Bill Haynes, the chairman of the Ag Society’s Building Committee. When they were offered the solar electric system from the Edgartown School, which was being replaced by a larger and more accessible one, they rose to the occasion. A Renewable Energy Trust grant created a perfect opportunity to move ahead in time for the fair. “It’s a big building that takes a lot of lighting and heating,” said Mr. Haynes. “We should be doing more of this.”

Mr. Haynes is also among the many folks on the Island who are now heating their swimming pools with solar collectors and claim that hot water feels better when it has been heated for free by the sun. “I believe in it,” he said. “Solar energy can’t do any harm.”

Many other projects

The Agricultural Society project is one of the 87 solar electric installations and 69 solar hot water systems that are part of the goal of 500 Vineyard Solar Roofs by 2010, under the U.S. Department of Energy’s Million Solar Roofs program. The program funded much of the Vineyard’s energy education and outreach over the last four years and was led by Kate Warner, Director of the Vineyard Energy Project (VEP). With the federal decision to close all but two U.S. Department of Energy regional offices, the Million Solar Roofs program has ended. “It seems a fitting end to the formal Million Solar Roofs program, that Island electricians would collaborate to install a system on a community building, working together on the Island’s energy future,” said Kate Warner.

Despite the conclusion of Million Solar Roofs, subsidies from the Renewable Energy Trust and a federal income tax credit for 2006 and 2007 will continue. VEP’s energy education and outreach also remain full speed ahead, with a focus on helping to move the Island towards greater energy independence from fossil fuels and the electrical umbilical cord to the mainland.

Hope for a renewable energy future, as well as a more environmentally sustainable Island, can also be found in Edgartown’s Atria Restaurant. The Atria recently started up its new solar hot water system, which should provide enough hot water heating for its entire three-season operation, including hot water for dishwashing, food preparation, and washrooms.

According to Atria owner and chef, Christian Thornton, the new solar panels have an immediate payback and could spare the atmosphere of more than four tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. “I was aware of how much energy it takes to run a restaurant,” said Christian. “So, when they came to me with a plan, it was an easy sell. This was not some pie in the sky. At today’s prices, the payback is around $2000 per year, which could go up considerably with a rise in fuel prices.”

Brian Nelson and David Sprague of Nelson Mechanical use a clean energy analysis software tool called RETScreen, developed by NASA, to take the guesswork out and evaluate the energy production and savings, life-cycle costs, financial viability and emission reductions. “All of us have kids, and we want to provide a better world for them,” said Brian Nelson. “When we use up the earth’s resources, we’re taking it from them.”

Christian Thornton agreed, “It’s important to know where your food comes from and the impact that has. Knowing where your energy comes from is just as important.”

The Million Solar Roofs program has paved the way for the Island to embrace solar energy and other renewable resources by proving that affordable technology exists and is readily available to reduce the last century’s precarious dependence on fossil fuels. Its lasting effect will be a community that is more educated about energy and more self-reliant – in keeping with the Island’s history of independence and ingenuity.

The public can view the solar electric system on the Ag Hall at the Agricultural Fair and read all about it. Look for a sign on the Main Barn and in the Hall. For more information on energy, solar electric, hot water or pool heating systems for your home or business, visit

To find out more about energy efficiency and renewable energy projects on the Island, visit This article is sponsored by the Vineyard Energy Project through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The Vineyard Energy Project promotes sustainable energy choices through education, outreach, and renewable energy projects. The author, Martha Shaw, is a member of the Vineyard Energy Project’s advisory board. The Times publishes these columns as a service to its readers.

Island residents focus energy on reducing carbon emissions

By Martha Shaw (Martha’s Vineyard, MA)

The notion of rising sea levels – as depicted in the film “An Inconvenient Truth,” which has been playing in local theaters this summer – is prompting many people to ask what they can do to reduce their individual “carbon footprint.” The term describes the emission of carbon from the combustion of fossil fuels and other sources in a person’s everyday life.

The truth is there are plenty of easy ways that everybody can reduce their carbon footprint. Conveniently these often serve to reduce one’s energy costs, as well. From solar technology to energy efficiency, people on the Island are helping to take stress off the earth’s atmosphere, and off the cables and transformers that provide electricity from the mainland, while saving money on their electric bills.

As of June 2006, the Island can boast of 153 solar energy systems that are generating clean energy without the carbon bi-product. They include solar electric panels, solar hot water heaters and solar collectors to heat pools that can pay for themselves in one summer swimming pool season.

Meanwhile biodiesel has become the fuel of choice for some island contractors and trucking businesses as a contribution to a healthier environment and perhaps even a more peaceful world. Hybrid cars that use 50-75 percent less fuel than conventional vehicles have also become a more familiar sight on Island roads. Considering that all Island fuel is imported and that each gallon of gas a car burns puts 19 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the increase in hybrid owners can make a big difference.

While climate change, pollution, and finite resources may be the greatest environmental challenges in the world, the Vineyard’s dependence on power from the mainland and a $64,000,000 annual energy bill brings the issue home. During winter, the heating bills skyrocket, and during summer tourist season, the cables and transformers approach capacity.

One of the local entities on the Island that focuses on these issues is the Vineyard Energy Project (VEP), a nonprofit group formed in 2003 to address concerns about the Vineyard’s energy future. Through grants and private donations, VEP brings programs, workshops, educational curriculum and public awareness to the Island in order to be ahead of the curve on renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Among the most important milestones of the VEP was the completion of the 10-year Energy Action Plan that assesses the Island’s energy usage and makes recommendations for the next decade. Included are improved energy efficiency in everything from home appliances to construction practices, alternative fuels and hybrid technology for transportation, the utilization of biomass and composting, the expansion of solar electricity, solar hot water and wind power, and education to create more awareness about reducing energy consumption by flipping off lights and electronics when not in use.

Taking the Vineyard Lighting Challenge is one of the easiest things a person can do to reduce the Island’s energy consumption. The Challenge asks each household and business, seasonal and year-round, to switch out at least 15 light bulbs from incandescent to compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs). According to the Energy Action Plan, if every household joined the Challenge, this effort could lower the Island’s total electrical demand by 7 percent. Each light bulb that is switched out reduces one’s carbon footprint by a half ton.

The Island has long been known for its spirit of independence, and remarkable ingenuity. Its approach to energy is no exception. By working together, ordinary people are doing extraordinary things. Throughout the year, the VEP has sponsored talks and workshops that have motivated everyone from teachers and contractors to political leaders and homeowners to take a look at how the Island can use energy more wisely.

On July 25, at Chilmark Library, 8 pm, and on August 8 at Vineyard Haven Library, at 7:30 pm, talks entitled “A Vineyard Unplugged” will focus on things the summer community can do to propel the Island toward greater energy independence. The public is welcome to stop by the Vineyard Energy Project at 1085 State Road in West Tisbury (10 am-noon, Tues., Thurs., and Sat.) to learn about the Island’s energy efforts and to learn about how to participate. For more details on what’s going on regarding energy independence on Martha’s Vineyard, visit

This article is sponsored by the Vineyard Energy Project through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The Vineyard Energy Project promotes sustainable energy choices through education, outreach, and renewable energy projects. The author, Martha Shaw, is a member of the Vineyard Energy Project’s advisory board. The Times publishes these columns as a service to its readers.

To find out more about energy efficiency and renewable energy projects on the Island, visit This article is sponsored by the Vineyard Energy Project through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The Vineyard Energy Project promotes sustainable energy choices through education, outreach, and renewable energy projects. The author, Martha Shaw, is a member of the Vineyard Energy Project’s advisory board. The Times publishes these columns as a service to its readers.

Vineyard Unplugged: Living off the grid

By Martha Shaw (Martha’s Vineyard, MA)

Tauras Biskis with his 20-year-old solar panels.

Prior to laying cable to the mainland’s electrical grid, the residents of Martha’s Vineyard had to be resourceful about where they got their energy. Today, many people choose to reduce their dependency on the expensive electricity provided by the cables. Some have chosen to install systems to harness energy from the sun, or from the wind. Others have purchased energy-efficient products and have become more diligent about turning down thermostats and flicking off switches. More rare are the people living entirely “off the grid” which means they aren’t connected to the utility company at all. While the cost of running power to remote properties can, indeed, be daunting, many of these people choose to live off the grid simply on principle and wouldn’t plug in even if they could.

One homeowner who is “unplugged” by choice is Woody Tasch of Chappaquiddick, who lives off the grid year-round in a house originally built by Bruce Lowther. Woody is chairman and CEO of Investors’ Circle, a venture capital network that focuses on sustainability, and he prefers to work at home. This means powering his computer and other electronics with solar energy. To protect them from going down in the rare instances when he runs out of juice, he uses a back-up gas generator.

He says, “We can’t keep burning fossil fuels to feed our every whim and think we’re going to get away with it. Maybe we can live like that for another 20 years but then what?” Woody recently bought a house in a remote region of New Mexico that is also “unplugged” where he plans to write his next book. He coined the phrase “urgent meta-sub-neo-Malthusian-post-greenhouse-environmental-justice-passion” to describe people like himself who are driven by their environmental conscience.

Another homeowner who is unplugged is Tauras Biskis, a musician living in the wilds of Chilmark. He says, “Being off the grid makes me feel closer to the earth…. instead of buying electricity from some stinky power plant.” He admits to being a bit extreme, but says he enjoys the lifestyle and will stay off the grid when he builds his new house, too. With new technology he hopes to optimize the amount of energy he gets from the sun. “I’ve got 10-year-old solar panels now that were passed down to me. I plan to have more panels and a bigger battery array for storage so I can rely as little as possible on propane.”

Though his solar panels allow him to generate the electricity that he uses, Tauras does need to buy gas from Vineyard Propane for cooking, and to supplement the solar panels when sun isn’t available. On a good day, however, the solar panels generate enough electricity to charge the battery bank. An inverter converts the energy to AC power. This runs the water pump, radio, the refrigerator and lights. An ingenious German-made Bosch on-demand water heater uses the hydraulic flow from the water pump to spin a mini-turbine that sparks an igniter switch, which lights the pilot, which lights a burner. When the pump stops running, the burners stop.

He says, “Being off the grid is more complicated in some ways, but much less complicated in others. I look at how much energy I have stored in the batteries and that helps me decide what I can do at that moment. It keeps me in touch with nature.” Like many who revere the Island’s natural surroundings, including its natural light and remarkable advantage for stargazing, the increased usage of indoor and outdoor lights at night on the Island discourage Tauras Biskis. “It’s a waste of energy. Given the chance, our eyes can adjust very well to the dark.”

For the Moore family of West Tisbury, the tradition of living off the grid goes back several generations, to a time before the “grid” was an option. Many of the Moores, whose childhood memories are filled with summers on the Vineyard with no phones or electricity, have chosen to live on the Island year-round and replace their summer camps with year-round homes. For some of them, tying into power lines is still not a valid option because of both logistics and politics. Martha Moore of Middle Point is one of several siblings who cherish the lifestyle.

When Martha built her new house, she was lucky to have the solar energy expertise of her relative, Bill Bennett. She installed an array of solar panels that she can tilt up and down to stay perpendicular to the sun for maximum effect. The panels help to power everything from the refrigerator, water pump, lights, washing machine, TV, stereo, VCR, DVD, two computers and a toaster. That’s with the support of a back-up generator for long periods of overcast skies. Conserving the usage of these amenities is enjoyable and a bit of a science. “What really draws the most energy is anything with heat, like coffee machines, irons, and such. And for now, we have a gas hot water heater and furnace. But, there are exciting new systems we’re looking into.”

While living off the grid isn’t for everyone, there are things everyone can do to lessen the load on the electrical supply to the Island. These include switching electronics off when not is use, using only cold water whenever possible, turning down thermostats, and switching off lights, indoors and out. Find out about programs on the Island that can help reduce your electricity consumption including the Vineyard Lighting Challenge, on Energy Day, May 6, or visit

This article is sponsored by the Vineyard Energy Project through a grant from the US Department of Energy. The Vineyard Energy Project promotes sustainable energy choices through education, outreach, and advocacy. The author, Martha Shaw, is a member of the Vineyard Energy Project’s advisory board. The Times publishes these columns as a service to its readers.

Solar collectors reduce the cost of hot water heating at home

By Martha Shaw (Martha’s Vineyard, MA)

The luxurious practice of bathing and showering in hot water for health and wellbeing can be traced back thousands of years across cultures from the Far East to ancient Rome. Only within the last century, however, have Americans come to rely on hot water available in every bathroom with the twist of knob or push of a button. Not only do we expect it on demand for bathing, but also for washing our clothes and getting our dishes squeaky clean. Barring the presence of geothermal springs in the earth below, this means raising the temperature of water. Throughout time, man has been heating hot water by burning wood, oil, gas, coal, or compost; and in many parts of the world, natural sunlight is used to heat water on rooftops. Now, solar hot water systems are taking their rightful place in history. In fact, heating hot water is among solar energy’s most efficient usages.

It’s easy to guesstimate the amount of energy coming from the sun. Ten square feet of surface on the planet exposed to direct sunlight receives about 1.4 kilowatts of sun power. The power level of one kilowatt for one second is an energy measurement called a BTU (British Thermal Unit). Think of a BTU as about the same amount of energy that comes from lighting one kitchen match. A BTU is also defined as the amount of energy needed to raise one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit. In general, it’s fair to assume that a fixed solar collector on an unobstructed roof on a sunny day receives 1 BTU per 10 square feet. A typical solar collector panel is 32 square feet so it can receive about three BTU’s per second. That’s roughly 10,000 BTU’s per hour for a collector about the size of a sheet of plywood. Five hours of bright sunshine in a day can make about 50,000 BTU of solar heat from one collector panel.

In the solar hot water system, this heat energy is then used to raise the water temperature of the well or town water. For instance, if well water is 50 degrees, and you want to raise its temperature 70 more degrees to reach 120 degrees, you can calculate how many gallons can be heated. If you divide the 50,000 BTU from the collector panel, by the 70 degree temperature rise needed, you can conclude that 714 pounds of hot water, or about 79 gallons, could be obtained per day from a single solar collector, minus the losses in transferring heat and storing the hot water. Back in the 1970s, during the energy crisis, solar collectors rose in popularity, but the movement lost its momentum as soon as the tax benefits and rebates disappeared. Now, state and federal incentives have returned as energy issues take the spotlight, and solar is back in full swing. The cost of a simple solar hot water installation can be as little as $2,500 including parts and labor, using sitebuilt or refurbished equipment. New systems with warranted equipment cost a bit more.

In December, Sarah Kuh and Chas deGeofroy of Chilmark decided to go ahead with solar hot water when they heard about a good deal offered by contractor Chris Fried of Vineyard Haven, who not only installs systems but also likes to invent them. “If you have a good roof angle and plenty of exposure, why not?” says Sarah. “There’s a sense of responsibility to use renewable resources as time goes on, and there are so many problems around energy, not the least of which is war. It’s readily available for free as long as the sun is shining.” Their system cost a total of $2,500, including labor. Though the solar collectors won’t reach their full potential until summer, on a sunny winter day, water temperatures in their 50-gallon solar tank can easily get to 100 degrees and up. This preheated water feeds into their gas water heater, reducing its load and reducing their dependence of fossil fuel.

“Everyone’s going to have to deal with the end of cheap oil,” says husband Chas. “We may not run out for a hundred years or more, but it’s going to get more expensive. Besides, it’s stupid to invade countries for cheap oil and then squander it. I think this is a good thing to get into… the wave of the future.”

Jim and Debbie Athearn of Morning Glory Farm worked with contractor Erik Lowe to design and install a solar hot water system for their home to replace their electric hot water heater. “We also intend to heat our dining room with looped hot water coils installed in the flooring,” says Jim. “But we’re still waiting to see how much hot water the collectors can produce.” Because the Athearns pre-plumbed the house to someday use solar hot water to heat their floors, their total cost was approximately $10,000. Most of their water heating is now provided for free, which they feel good about, both economically and politically. “But for right now,” Jim adds, “the Arabs are still heating my dining room. Either them or the Texans.”

South Mountain Company Inc. chose Laurel Wilkinson’s house in Island Co-Housing to demonstrate and monitor a new Enerworks solar hot water system that cost about $7,500 total. Laurel, who works at the eco-friendly firm, prefers the soft hum of the system’s pump to the sound of the oil furnace firing up. She says, “As a child, I was raised not to use what I don’t need, and that includes both water and energy. In my family, we turned down the thermostat at night and wore an extra layer to stay warm. College years are the age when people look at their own values and what’s important to them. For me this was during an energy crisis. I began to study various environmentally conscious topics around architecture. Being here at South Mountain I am fortunate to have the opportunity to integrate my values with my work.”

The house has a large south-facing roof with two solar collectors that have been producing most of the home’s water heat for two years now and their performance is monitored with great enthusiasm. “For me, one of the big things is seeing where the energy is coming from,” says Laurel. “It’s like seeing where your food is grown.”
Contractors on the Island are revving up their capacity to install systems, now that incentives for solar hot water heating have been issued again. Both state and federal tax credits are currently available for new, warranted equipment that has been approved by the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation. Forty plumbers, heating contractors, architects and builders on the Island will attend a solar hot water training workshop on March 16.

To find out more about solar hot water and opportunities for funding, visit

This article is sponsored by the Vineyard Energy Project through a grant from the U.S. DOE’s Million Solar Roofs program. The Vineyard Energy Project promotes sustainable energy choices through education, outreach, and renewable energy projects. The author, Martha Shaw, is a member of the Vineyard Energy Project’s advisory board. The Times publishes these columns as a service to its readers.

It takes an Island to change a light bulb

By Martha Shaw (Martha’s Vineyard, MA)

If every household and business were to change 15 incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs), we would lower the Island’s electrical demand by seven percent, according to the “Vineyard Lighting Challenge.” The Challenge is a strategy recommended in the recently developed Vineyard Energy Action Plan, which claims that switching to CFL bulbs is the easiest, most cost-effective opportunity for electric efficiency. It could amount to a total of almost $3 million saved on Island electric bills in one year.

A CFL bulb uses only one third of the energy of a standard incandescent bulb of equal light quality. Incandescent bulbs have changed little since their invention at the end of the 19th century and waste 90 percent of their energy producing heat instead of light. Fluorescent light has typically come in the form of long white tubes that cast an industrial grayish-blue light. It has now evolved into natural looking full-spectrum light in standard bulbs that come in all shapes and sizes to fit sockets almost anywhere.

Jesse Steere, owner of Shirley’s Hardware, has switched over the bulbs in his store and in his home. He explains the difference. “A fluorescent bulb creates light when the chemicals in the tube are activated by energy and that’s always been more efficient. An incandescent bulb lights up when electricity heats the wires in the bulb.” At Shirley’s, the most popular CFL is the 13-watt soft white, which is closest to the look of sunlight. It is equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent bulb and is designed to last 10,000 hours with a light output of 100 lumens. That’s 10 times longer than a conventional bulb. Jesse thinks switching to CFLs is not only an easy way to save money, but a way that everyone on the Island could be working together to save energy. He is also installing solar panels. “The Island is at the limit of our capacity now and running another cable or installing generators that pollute isn’t the answer,” says Jesse. “And we certainly don’t want a nuclear power plant out here.”

The Vineyard Lighting Challenge calls for a commitment from every business and residential home, seasonal and year-round, to change 15 bulbs to CFL. If everyone accepts the challenge, the net result could amount to a reduction of 12,175 megawatt-hours used per year, which is a 50 percent drop in the amount of electricity currently used for lighting. That’s four percent of the total $64 million that the Island spends on energy this year, or almost $3 million. With the recent leap in electrical prices, the cost benefit to the community as a whole, and to each NSTAR customer, is enormous — just for screwing in a few light bulbs.

How many Maciels does it take to change a light bulb? Bob Maciel Sr. of West Tisbury has been reaping the rewards of CFLs for a year now, and he has convinced his three sons — Keith, Steven and Vincent — to change to CFLs as well. “I began by replacing 24 bulbs and then another 24. They really work nice. It’s perfect light. Replacing a light bulb is something anyone can do.” Bob is no stranger to the topic of energy on Martha’s Vineyard. He served on the Dukes County Emergency Management team for 12 years until recently. “Mostly we dealt with storms and other emergencies, but another risk is that there isn’t enough energy. The transformers and cables burn out all the time. The overload is what is causing these things to let go. It’s too bad the wind farm turned into such a fiasco. That would save the day for us, and bring our costs way down.

“We can’t stop the seasonal residents from wasting so much electricity with outdoor lighting and such, but the people who live here, we can do something about it. Maybe a caretaker will read this article and send a message to the summer people.”

Bob is also in the process of having solar panels installed on his roof to further reduce his dependency on the cables and transformers. He explains, “I figure that the less energy I use, the more there is for someone else. We’re a community here. If you screw in a light bulb, you can do something. The Lighting Challenge seems like a wonderful idea for getting everybody working together.”

In certain dense energy markets in this country when the electric grid is at peak, a watt saved is a watt earned and the term negawatt is used to describe curtailed demand or unused watts. They have a monetary value beyond savings on the electric bill because they reduce stress on overloaded systems. On Martha’s Vineyard, a reduction of the 12,175 megawatt-hours called for in the Challenge, has value as well, though not as apparent. New cables and transformers cost consumers money, and there is an environmental factor full of hidden costs.

Emissions from the generation of 12,175 megawatt-hours of electricity by a power plant on the Cape can amount to about 4,500 tons of CO2 and other pollutants released into the atmosphere. CO2, a bi-product of fossil fuel combustion is known to trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere, a phenomenon called “greenhouse effect.” An increase in water temperature by a fraction of a degree can alter the circulation of ocean currents and raise sea level. The contrast of temperature and humidity between the atmosphere and the ocean is a major determinate of weather extremes and affects everything from fishing to farming. While experts may argue about global warming, there are few arguments about the benefit of reducing the energy consumption of finite resources like fossil fuels.

As the Island continues to address the quality of the environment, water pollutants, recycling and waste disposal become topics of increased importance. Like many products, all light bulb varieties should be disposed of properly and CFLs are no exception. As part of the Vineyard Lighting Challenge, the Refuse District has agreed to set up appropriate disposal for CFLs.

The Vineyard Lighting Challenge kicks off Dec. 21, the darkest day of the year, with Solstice Events at Cronig’s Market in Vineyard Haven and the Edgartown Stop & Shop, where you can buy CFLs at cost for this one day only. They are also available at Shirley’s Hardware and other stores for about $1 each, depending on the style. This price is a limited time offer made possible because Cape Light Compact is subsidizing CFLs through a program funded by the conservation fee on each electric bill. In short, there’s no better time to take the Vineyard Lighting Challenge and change at least 15 light bulbs to compact fluorescent.

To sign up for Vineyard Lighting Challenge, learn more about our Energy Action Plan, or to find out about other energy efficiency and renewable energy programs on the Vineyard, visit

This article is sponsored by the Vineyard Energy Project through a grant from the U.S. DOE’s Million Solar Roofs program. The Vineyard Energy Project promotes sustainable energy choices through education, outreach, and renewable energy projects. The author, Martha Shaw, is a member of the Vineyard Energy Project’s advisory board. The Times publishes these columns as a service to its readers.

Vineyard Unplugged: Island homes turn to the sun for energy

By Martha Shaw  (Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts)

Gay and Art Nelson

Gay and Art Nelson of West Tisbury have had hopes of becoming energy independent ever since the oil embargo in the 1970s, which left the Island vulnerable to a shortage in fuel. At that time, there were tax credit and rebate incentives across the country to support local renewable energy. According to Art, they had the potential to prevent what he and others believe is an impending energy situation.

“Solar-powered homes got a false start back then, as did wind power,” says Art. “But the new technology makes it so easy, the Island is back on track.”

Years ago the Nelsons were happy to generate enough solar power at their wilderness camp to run a refrigerator and lights. Now the solar panels on their home in West Tisbury regularly generate a surplus of energy that they sell back to NStar.

“It feels good to be feeding the grid,” says Art. “On a sunny day, it’s comforting to watch the electric meter spin backward. Since last August when we installed the new panels, we have generated over three thousand kilowatt-hours. If our roof were facing directly south and had a higher pitch, we could make even more.”

Like many islands, Martha’s Vineyard has a colorful energy history that goes back for centuries and includes windmills, whale blubber, fuel tankers, contemporary submarine cables, and now photovoltaic cells in solar panels.

“I think some people assume that solar isn’t a good source for us here because we don’t have enough direct sunlight, but that is not the case,” says Gay. “There are places in northern Europe and even higher latitudes that are far more rainy and cloudy, yet they’ve been relying on solar panels for decades. The biggest shortage here is economic incentive.”

Watching the electric meter run backward has become a favorite pastime of her grandchildren. But, according to Gay, when there are a lot of kids in the house running around, taking showers and powering up electronics, they tend to use up everything the panels generate. Running the laundry and other machinery on sunny days makes a big difference.

Glenn and Linda Hearn

In college in the 1960s, Glenn Hearn used a solar panel with a couple of wires and a plug to power his transistor radio. Since then he has been interested in the science of renewable energy. When Glenn designed and built his own house in West Tisbury 10 years ago, he faced the roof precisely south and planned ahead for solar panels, knowing that the technology was evolving and would someday be up to speed. The most difficult thing, he remembers, was predicting when panel manufacturers would get production up and the price down enough to make it cost effective for heating and powering homes.

“In the 60s and 70s, people got tax credits for doing the right thing,” says Glenn. “The credits motivated everybody to insulate buildings and to think about renewable energy. At the time, it made a huge difference. Our government missed the boat when it took away incentives, so now we have a very complicated economy around energy that we must live with. The future will be interesting. I hope that someday we’ll have fuel cell designs so sophisticated that our cars will power our homes.”

For now, Linda and Glenn are content with the three arrays of six panels each that they have on the roof. The system is estimated to produce about 2,700 kilowatt-hours a year. Between March 2004 and October 2004 they generated between 200 and 400 kilowatt- hours per month. In January, with the sun lower in the sky, more cloud cover, and snow drifting over the panels, production fell to 85 kilowatt- hours, enough to run some appliances.

With or without photovoltaic cells, Glenn originally designed the home to take full advantage of the sun’s energy, orienting the windows to optimize sunshine in the winter and shade in the summer. Though Linda wasn’t directly involved with the building process, the topic of solar research and development has peaked her interest since the 1970s, when there was plenty of optimism for renewable, locally generated energy.

“I prefer the solar to fossil fuel, because I always know where my home’s energy is coming from,” says Linda. “It’s comforting.”

Susan and Bob Wasserman

Though it is easier to plan for solar in new construction than to retrofit a house later, Bob and Susan Wasserman love Victorian homes. When they made the decision to go solar with their West Tisbury home, built in 1863, they contacted local architect and solar specialist Kate Warner.

This launched a project that is now complete.

“It’s been rewarding, “ says Susan. “The project appealed to a sense of responsibility that I grew up with. We remember the Great Depression. I never assume that resources are unlimited and I’m not comfortable with wasting anything.”

The first thing they did was to get a free home energy audit, sponsored by Cape Light Compact, available to every Island resident (contact 800-797-6699). After the audit, the Wassermans got a detailed report on where they were losing heat and exactly what was using energy where, and to what extent. Through efficiency and proper insulation, the home reached its energy conservation goal. Susan was surprised by how easy it was to cut down on kilowatt hours. “The great thing is that there is no deprivation when you maximize your energy efficiency. Most things were a matter of being more aware.”

A solar array was installed next to their vegetable garden. It now generates about one third of their household’s energy, including a home office of fax machines, phones, copiers, and other equipment. On a particularly sunny day the array can produce much more energy than the Wassermans need. In that case, their electric meter spins backward, and NStar purchases the renewable energy.

Bob Wasserman says he is not doing this for the payback, although it will eventually pay for itself. “My payback is how pleased I am,” he says. “Fossil fuel depends on sources of supply over which we have little or no control. It’s not about what politician you support, because the system itself is political, and there is no way around it but to think independently as an Island community.”

Susan agrees, “We have terrific, smart people on the Vineyard, and I think we’ll get it right by learning from other islands around the world and by communicating well. Together we can create a role model for others and a healthy place to live. Feeling good about our energy is an intriguing idea.”

On Saturday, July 16, there is a Solar Home Tour in West Tisbury from 9 am to noon, all within walking distance of the Farmer’s Market. A good place to start is at 1085 State Road. Look for signs and yellow balloons or see the Calendar section of The Times for site locations. To find out more about this and other local energy projects, go to

This article is sponsored by the Vineyard Energy Project through a grant from the Department of Energy’s Million Solar Roofs program. The Vineyard Energy Project promotes sustainable energy choices through education, outreach, and renewable energy projects. The author, Martha Shaw, is a member of the Vineyard Energy Project’s advisory board. The Times publishes these columns as a service to its readers.

Island kids do the math on energy efficiency and solar electricity

By Martha Shaw (Martha’s Vineyard, MA)

If every house on the Island were as energy efficient as the ones made by Lynn Gatchell’s fifth grade class at the Tisbury School, people could save a lot of money. That’s the lesson that Mrs. Gatchell hopes her students learned when they divided up into construction teams to build miniature model homes.

“I’m trying to teach them that we can become much less dependent on the ‘extension chords’ that bring power to us from the mainland,” said Lynn.

Each team had a $10 budget of play money to build its home, and an 8”x 8” x 12” cardboard box. They could save money by using free materials from a makeshift recycling center. Available for purchase were building materials, including aluminum foil and duct tape at 50¢ per foot, bubble wrap for $3 per foot, and construction paper for 50¢ per sheet. The buildings had to conform to strict building codes concerning windows, ceiling height, and the thickness of insulation.

Upon completion, each dwelling was tested for energy efficiency using ice bags and thermometers that measured temperature change over a two-hour period. Then calculations were made. The students compared the efficiency among various designs and projected the difference in energy usage, and how much that could cost. A few of the better designs yielded a hypothetical net savings of $500 in 10 years, which is not bad for a house that’s just under one square foot.

“The children were very resourceful,” according to their teacher, who masterminded the simulation. “I let them learn through trial and error. Some of them figured out that by layering newspaper and plastic bags, they could keep their houses better insulated. The placement and orientation of the windows to the sunlight also made a big difference. A few of the children experimented with awnings and other innovations.”

Though the project oversimplifies the complexity of designing real houses like those renovated by her son Kyle of KG Construction, Mrs. Gatchell chose the project to make a point. “As an Island we need to be as efficient as possible. The more independent we can be of fossil fuels from the mainland, the better off we are, if and when the cables are down. Whether we look at solar and wind, or whatever, I’m interested in teaching the Island students to think about being more independent.”

Another important part of her curriculum is homework. For one assignment, she asked them to monitor the electric meter and keep a log of how fast it spun whenever they turned on a light, played a computer game or ran an appliance. “I want my students to learn about where energy comes from, how it gets used and what they can do differently to use less,” she said.
At the Chilmark School, teachers Jackie Guzalak and Jack Regan are making the same effort, and it’s paying off. This year two fifth grade students, who go by the name of “Solar Sisters,” received state honorable mention in a national competition sponsored by the National Energy Education Department, and a trip to Washington, D.C. Cape Light Compact helped fund the trip, as well as Menemsha and Chilmark businesses who bought ads in the school’s Energy Fair program. Katy Smith and Lindsay Tocik won their award by collecting data from the Chilmark Community Center’s solar array and recording the amount of solar electricity generated under different weather conditions and air temperatures. With the help of their teachers and local energy educator, Nan Doty, they made charts and graphs of how photovoltaic cells work, and wrote about how various factors affect a photovoltaic cell’s performance. Then they put it all in a scrapbook and sent it off for submission.

“It was really fun,” said Katy, “and we learned how solar works.”

Her best friend Lindsay agreed. “The most exciting part was learning how to do spreadsheets.” If a solar energy competition can make spreadsheets fun to do, then everybody involved in these projects deserves an award.

To find out more about energy efficiency and renewable energy projects on the Island, visit This article is sponsored by the Vineyard Energy Project through a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. The Vineyard Energy Project promotes sustainable energy choices through education, outreach, and renewable energy projects. The author, Martha Shaw, is a member of the Vineyard Energy Project’s advisory board. The Times publishes these columns as a service to its readers.