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.

A 10-year Energy Plan goes into action

By Martha Shaw (MVTimes, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts)

As though perfectly timed, given the rising costs of fuel, a 10-year Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Action Plan has just been completed for Martha’s Vineyard that assesses the Island’s energy usage and provides recommendations for the next decade.

In a nutshell, the Energy Plan recommends the following: better efficiency in new construction; improved efficiency in existing construction; increased availability of alternative energy services and technology; more education and outreach; the expansion of solar and wind power; a move toward alternative fuels in transportation; and utilization of biomass and composting that reclaims profits for the Island.

Four people, each concentrating on different areas, are poised to help put the solar component of the Energy Plan into action: Nan Doty; Susan Wasserman; Bart Smith; and Kate Warner. Ms. Doty is a former schoolteacher who advocates for solar energy education in the local schools. Ms. Wasserman is organizing solar users to share their experiences. Mr. Smith is planning solar awareness events to reach residents, seasonal homeowners, and summer visitors. And Ms. Warner, the founder of the Vineyard Energy Project, is facilitating training workshops in solar electricity, solar hot water and energy efficiency for electricians, plumbing and heating professionals, architects, and builders.

Nan Doty talks about why she is focused on energy from the sun. “I learned as a teacher that students expand their thinking when they experiment. Hands-on school projects show students how the sun’s energy can power everything from solar model cars to the schools themselves. The idea is that they will take their understanding of energy home with them. When you flip on a switch, it’s important to be aware of where the energy comes from and why. The history of the Island, and the rest of the world for that matter, has been shaped by energy supply and demand and the choices we make. With new technology, we now have an opportunity to take solar power seriously if we are open minded.”

The completion of The Energy Plan marks an important moment in the Island’s energy history. Over the centuries, Martha’s Vineyard has relied on everything from whale blubber to windmills that once dotted the island. Today, more than 99.9 percent of all energy used on the Island comes from the mainland via underwater electricity cables connected to power plants on the Cape, fuel barges, and trucks bearing oil, propane, and kerosene. The Energy Plan outlines ways to significantly decrease the Island’s dependency on these sources.

Toward the goal of expanding the number of solar installations on the Island as outlined in the plan, Susan Wasserman, who powers her own Victorian home in West Tisbury with solar, is creating a Solar Corps: a network of homeowners who use solar power. The hope is that those who are enjoying reductions in their energy bills through their solar electricity and hot water systems will inspire others by sharing their experiences.

Outreach efforts like Solar Corps will be strengthened by solar events and communication programs throughout the year, led by Bart Smith. “By expanding communication on the Island around renewable energy alternatives and efficiency, we can get more people on board, which is important if we are going to make a difference,” he said.

Kate Warner agrees. “The biggest challenge is definitely shifting people’s thinking about energy. We are trying to provide the Island with information that will help people draw their own conclusions. Once we realize as a community the many ways we can benefit by reducing our energy dependency on non-renewable resources, anything’s possible. Martha’s Vineyard is learning lessons from communities all over the world and can be a healthy model for the Northeast.” Ms. Warner is the Vineyard’s solar pioneer who initiated the U. S. Dept. of Energy’s Million Solar Roofs program on the Island, and who continues to demonstrate that solar power is a viable and important source of energy, even in this climate. Subsidies provided by the program have given homeowners the economic incentive they needed to invest in solar systems.

Though the uncertain future of oil is reason enough to look closely at other options, it is not the only factor weighing in. Emissions from coal and fuel-burning power plants situated just up wind are considered to be a health hazard to people and other living things, while shipping fuel has proven to be an environmental liability and an added energy drain. But perhaps the most urgent incentive to get a better grasp on the Island’s supply and demand is the fact that the submarine transmission cables are approaching capacity.

Last year, free energy audits offered by the Cape Light Compact helped homeowners and businesses easily and economically realize energy efficiencies and reduce consumption. Meanwhile solar installations are turning Island rooftops into viable energy producers. An increasing number of homes are creating solar electricity, while others are solar-heating their hot water and pools. The Island now has at least 140 solar roofs in place. Approximately 80 are solar electric roofs, and 60 are solar hot water. By 2010, the Plan shoots for 500 total, which would account for about 1% of the usage. That could make a difference considering the Island’s 2005 energy bill is projected to be about $64 million.

Energy-efficient building materials, better insulation and innovative architecture can play key roles in keeping the Island’s consumption of fossil fuel at bay. However, population growth, continued development, and the new phenomenon of extra-large summer homes that are powered, heated and cooled year-round are serious challenges. The Energy Plan represents a unified effort to meet the Island’s energy needs while preserving the quality of life.

Everywhere on earth, the strength or weakness of Island people is closely tied to their ability to protect resources, to innovate and plan ahead, and Martha’s Vineyard is no exception. With the rapid emergence of new technology and a boom in the clean energy industry, a unique opportunity has presented itself for the Island to regain more energy independence – just as energy prices are projected to go through the roof.

To find out more about the Energy Plan or to request a copy of the full report, go to

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.

What You Don’t Know About Your Cleaning Products Can Hurt You

By Martha Shaw (MVTimes, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts)

While the chemicals in modern household cleansers may dissolve more dirt and grime faster than ever before, the airborne particles and invisible toxic film left behind easily go unnoticed. There are thousands of chemicals lurking in cleaning solutions that are proven to be hazardous to our health and the environment in varying degrees. For many reasons, medical research can’t tell us exactly how much human exposure is too much. What we do know is that the household cleaning product market is nearly $18 billion strong and the industry has one of the most powerful lobbying forces in Washington to protect its liberty to produce and sell chemicals to consumers with few restrictions regarding health and the environment.

The average household contains anywhere from 3 to 25 gallons of toxic materials, most of which are cleaning agents, degreasers, polishers, disinfectants, waxes, sanitizers, deodorizers, anti-redeposition agents, bleaches, drain clearers, oven cleaners, builders, mildewcides, enzymes and optical brighteners. According to research conducted by the EPA, the air inside the average household is two to three times more polluted than air just outside its walls. One five-year study revealed that the levels of certain chemicals in many homes were 70 times greater than they were outdoors. Activists claim that we are all guinea pigs. What statistics do reveal is that homemakers and cleaning professionals have a higher than average incidence of cancer.

According to the Children’s Health and Environmental Coalition ( small children are the most vulnerable. The ratio of chemical concentration to body size is higher, they touch most everything, and they have a habit of putting fingers and toes in their mouths. The same observations are true about pets. Many organizations have been founded to inform the public on how to keep homes and yards safe from toxic household cleaning products. Others focus on related health conditions. On the Island, groups have formed to look at how toxins affect human health and other forms of life when they pollute soil, surface water and groundwater. A common link among these local alliances is the Vineyard Conservation Society (

Across the country, there are other public-interest groups that are advocating for Right-to-Know laws that would require the chemical manufacturers of household products to list ingredients on the packaging. To keep your home safe, a rule of thumb is to choose products that voluntarily disclose the ingredients — even if you don’t quite know what they are. Instead, an arsenal of cleaning products have warnings: keep out of reach of children; hazardous to humans and pets; eye irritant; avoid food contact; flammable; avoid contact with eyes, skin and clothing; harmful if swallowed and do not induce vomiting. The most common environmental warnings are variations on: Do not reuse bottle. Rinse bottle carefully. Discard in trash.

While the big names in cleaning products can fuel a cleaning frenzy to get our homes cleaner than clean through enormous expenditures in advertising, smaller brands are often overlooked. But a growing number of safe, non-toxic cleaning products are getting a foot in the market. Finding these products requires looking a little harder. Name brands including Seventh Generation and Sun & Earth are safe choices available in some Island stores, and you can order others on-line at sites including Another healthy alternative is to make your own. Natural acids in orange, lemon, and vinegar and other things occurring in nature cut through grease and grime, and baking soda is an excellent abrasive. Water, the great universal solvent, does a great job of cleaning up most everyday messes. There are also non-toxic alternatives for almost every use of pesticides. For instance, pepper and natural boric acid sprinkled along baseboards, crawl spaces, and cupboards can create a barrier to insects.

Plenty of literature is available on fighting dirt and germs with healthy product choices and home remedies. You can download a free “Guide to a Toxin-free Home” at, which also includes an index to chemicals. Other good sources are, “The Sierra Club Green Guide,” and the “Safe Shopper’s Bible: A Consumer’s Guide to Non-Toxic Household Products, Cosmetics and Food.”

Choosing environmentally safe products is a topic close to home on an island where natural resources are strikingly finite. Very little research is available on the individual destiny paths of toxins once they are poured, washed, and flushed into our septic systems and waterworks. While the dangers of chlorine-based chemicals and phosphates to surface and groundwater are well documented, others are not.

The best way to protect your family and the Island’s eco-system from toxic household cleaning products is to use only products that state specifically that they are toxic-free and earth-friendly. Then you leave nothing to chance.

Martha Shaw is a science and media specialist who focuses on sustainable practices. She lives in Oak Bluffs and is the founder of Earth Advertising, a production company that promotes conscientious consumption. She is on the New England Aquarium Marine Advisory Board and Vineyard Unplugged, and is a board director of MVTV.

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.

Island residents install solar panels to reduce pollution

by Martha Shaw

Susan and Mas Kimball

When Sue Kimball checks the news, she also checks the level of air quality published every day. “People are ignoring the fact that the air is getting worse,” she says.

It was pollution that drove Sue and Mas Kimball to build a home that consumes as little power from dirty power plants as possible. Neither of them understands how anyone could put up a new house these days without at least considering passive solar in the building plans. Passive solar means orienting your house and windows so you get heat from the sun when you need it most and get shaded from the sun when you need it least, thus reducing the need for heat and air conditioning.

They also agreed that they wanted their house to be an Energy Star, a government designated term for things that minimize energy usage.

“We know that the more energy we use, the more impact we have on the earth,” says Mas. “We outfitted the house with Energy Star appliances and put four large solar panels on the roof. That’s how we do our part.”

To produce their own energy, they researched solar energy options. There are two basic kinds. Solar hot water systems heat water as it flows through solar collectors and sends it to a storage tank. Solar electric systems (or photovoltaics) create DC electricity in solar panels, which is converted to AC in an inverter that is connected to the house’s electric panel.` The electricity generated is registered by a meter on the house, and feeds the utility grid. The Kimballs chose to do solar electric because it allows energy to be either used by the house or sold back to the grid, and because it’s more common these days.

Mas explains, “The solar industry is concentrating more on solar electricity, so inverter efficiency and panel technology is getting better all the time. We put four large 300-watt panels on the roof and a hi-tech inverter in the garage. The more people implement it, the more economical it gets, and we love being part of its growth.”


Even though the number of panels on the Island multiplies by the month, people are still surprised to see that the Vineyard can capture so much energy from the sun. The Kimballs find that when their friends stop by they like to marvel at the meter. When the meter spins backward, NStar buys back the kilowatt-hours. Economically, however, it works out better to use the energy produced from the panels right on the spot. So, Sue likes to synchronize running her washer and dryer with sunny days. This gives modern meaning to the age-old expression, “Make hay while the sun shines.” A native of Great Britain, she believes that our country takes fossil fuel for granted. “For Europeans, conservation of fuel has always been a way of life.”

Darlene and Paul Breen

Darlene Oberg and Paul Breen put eight 160-watt solar electric panels on their roof, mainly because the idea of free power makes them feel — powerful. “I don’t like the idea of relying on foreign oil because there are too many political things going on that are out of my control,” says Paul. “In my eyes, ninety percent of the reason why we’re in Iraq is for the oil, the other 10 percent is a grudge. I’m unhappy about environmental and educational grants getting cut. Also, burning fossil fuel is unhealthy.”

Like many other solar energy producers, Darlene and Paul get a kick out of watching their meter spin backward, and so do their guests. Darlene muses, “When people come by, we all go watch the meter. You laugh, but people are really impressed. Especially on a nice sunny day.”

On a cloudy day, Darlene and Paul use most of the energy they generate, and the meter just hovers in neutral. Last month’s historical snowstorm was an exception. The panels were covered with snow for more than two weeks and their electric meter churned forward like everybody else’s. Eventually icicles signaled that snow was melting off the roof and it slowly began to spin backward again. “We jumped for joy,” says Darlene. And, Paul adds, “It felt good to be powered up again.”

Eric Stricoff and Rhonda Cohen

The fact that two of the dirtiest power plants in Massachusetts, Brayton Point and Canal Sandwich, are just upwind of the Island was all the incentive that Eric Stricoff and Rhonda Cohen needed to put up the largest residential solar panel array to date in Edgartown. Eric describes the big day when the twenty 150-watt panels were up and running, “On July 15, 2004, our system, estimated to generate 3,000-3,500 kilowatt-hours per year, went live. Producing clean energy is uplifting. They’re all kilowatt-hours that don’t produce air pollution.”

With 3,000 kilowatt-hours being produced by the sun, the house that once fed on 8,000-9,000 kilowatt-hours a year was down to a diet of 6,000 kilowatt-hours produced by dirty power plants burning oil, gas and coal. For both Rhonda and Eric, that was still way too much.

Intent on cutting back, they turned to conservation and efficiency. As a result of the free energy audit offered by Cape Light Compact (contact 800-797-6699) they shaved off another 30 percent by cutting down their usage. Cape Light Compact energy auditor Tom Mayhew amazed them with dozens of ways to conserve energy that required nothing of them but more conscientiousness. They unplugged the clock in the guestroom. They began to unplug the VCR, cable box and TV that remain on-demand even when they’re turned off. They began to unplug all appliances with digital time clocks, including the microwave and stove when they weren’t using them. They replaced all light bulbs in every fixture, indoors and out, with fluorescent bulbs given to them by the auditor. They insulated the bulkhead, sealed the basement and directed water away from the house to reduce the load on the dehumidifier. They became more meticulous about cleaning the lint screen in the dryer. Computers, chargers and lights got turned off more often. They scrutinized everything in their house right down to the 20-watt nightlight, which was replaced with a two-watt light. Though some of these may seem ridiculously insignificant, it all added up to save them another 3,000 kilowatt-hours a year of dirty energy. In total, they reduced their burden on the power plants by 6,000 kilowatt-hours a year. But that still leaves 3,000, and Rhonda speaks up about this, “We need to put more pressure on our legislators to adopt better environmental policies. Even locally, I think the Island can adopt more sustainable practices in the areas of energy, transportation, water protection and waste if we all work together.”

Theoretically, reducing demand for energy means reducing harmful emissions from the power plants. In the case of the coal burning power plant at Brayton Point in Somerset, the significance is far greater. Mercury spewing from coal burners settles in our coastal waters and is known to concentrate in our fish. Thus, here on the Island, the type of energy we consume not only affects the quality of the air we breathe, but the health of our local economy.

One of the foremost experts on energy issues is author Paul Roberts. His talk about “The End of Oil” will take place at the Old Whaling Church on Saturday, March 12 at 7:30 pm, followed by discussion about ways to meet the energy challenges of a changing world. To find out more about this and other events on energy efficiency and renewable energy on Martha’s Vineyard, 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.