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 www.vineyard-unplugged.com.

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 (www.checnet.org) 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 (www.vcsmv.org).

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 www.ecos.com. 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 www.seventhgeneration.com, which also includes an index to chemicals. Other good sources are www.greenseal.org, “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.