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.