MONHEGAN ISLAND – The ocean view from Doug and Alice Boynton’s deck is stunning. It offers a glimpse of why people from all over the country find their way in summer to this craggy outpost, 11 miles off Port Clyde.
Also stunning, for the island’s 50 or so year-round residents, are energy bills. Electric rates are among the highest in the continental United States, four times what Mainers pay on the mainland. Heating costs also are crazy. A cord of split firewood that’s $220 elsewhere in Lincoln County is more than $400 here. Taken together, spending $5,000 a year for heat and lights is not unusual.
So Doug Boynton was excited to see a long-awaited boat arrive in the harbor last week — not the first tourists of the season, but a landing vessel carrying a truck that dispenses spray-foam insulation. It was a first-ever event for Monhegan, and took months of planning.
“Getting that spray truck out here is a dream come true,” said Boynton, a longtime lobster fisherman and a trustee of the Island Institute in Rockland. “I think energy costs are the biggest deterrent to people living here year-round.”
Island homeowners paid $150 for the audit and six hours of basic air-sealing. That’s a substantial discount, thanks to a $600-per-home offset that’s part of a statewide program being offered by Efficiency Maine, the agency that coordinates weatherization funding in the state.
Maine’s struggle with energy costs is statewide, but the impact is magnified on its 15 coastal islands with winter populations. As prices rise, the actual survival of these iconic lobster-fishing communities is at stake.
That’s why it was a big deal for a spray-foam truck and weatherization crew to spend last week on Monhegan. They were due to insulate and/or air-seal roughly 15 homes on the island — half of all year-round dwellings — including one owned by the artist Jamie Wyeth. The work is expected to save each home at least $450 a year.
Similar projects have been done on other islands, including Vinalhaven and Peaks Island. A crew is planning later this month to do basic air sealing at eight homes on Isle au Haut. Other islands may be added in the near future.
On Monhegan, residents also hope to get some relief later this year from their 70-cent-per-kilowatt-hour electric bills. A $420,000 federal grant will pay for a new, more-efficient generator and solar-electric panels. The idea is to better match the energy needs in winter, when the population falls from 600 or so to 50.
Monhegan Island is bustling in mid-May, as workers, shop owners and innkeepers scramble to prepare for waves of summer residents and visitors. The Monhegan these guests come for is the clustered, weathered-gray village connected by dirt roads. It is the hiking trails that thread through deep woods to soaring bluffs; the changing moods of the sea and the special light that has drawn generations of artists to paint and sketch.
But if they come to Monhegan looking for air conditioning, mini-fridges and vending machines, they’ve come to the wrong place. Most inns don’t even put hair dryers in the rooms, according to Suzanne MacDonald, community energy director at the Island Institute. She recalled how a travel writer for The Huffington Post visited the island last year and wrote about how a cafe owner chastised him for plugging in his smartphone for a recharge. Power’s very expensive here, the owner told him.
The travel writer, like most visitors, wasn’t aware of the oversized electric generators that suck up more than 30,000 gallons a year of diesel fuel — priced at $3.79 a gallon for the last delivery — which must be delivered by boat and offloaded from tanker trucks. He wouldn’t know that the propane tanks strapped onto the mail boat contain fuel that costs $5.53 a gallon, when the statewide average price is $2.75.
“It’s hard when you’re a little community, 11 miles out to sea, and you’re dependent on global energy markets,” MacDonald says.
One response, organized by the Island Institute, is Weatherization Week.
The program began last year in Penobscot Bay, on Vinalhaven. An energy auditor and weatherization company, Home Energy Answers from Albion, went out to identify and plug the most-obvious thermal leaks in eight homes.
They used spray foam to fill cracks and create a thermal blanket along foundations and sills. They boxed chimneys with flashing, and caulked and weatherstripped doors and windows. These and other measures are considered the most cost-effective ways to cut heat loss in older buildings. Fuel costs typically are trimmed by 15-20 percent with basic air-sealing, and more with additional insulation.
It’s no big thing to get a spray-foam truck to drive to your house on the mainland, but it’s a challenge to bring one to Monhegan. The Island Institute had to interest a critical mass of residents, in order to make the trip feasible. It arranged for the 65-foot landing vessel Reliance to meet the weatherization crew in Port Clyde at high tide. And somehow, it was able to schedule the crossing on a morning when the weather was clear and the sea was calm.
Island ingenuity also helped. After an hour at sea, the Reliance lowered its ramps on Fish Beach. The falling tide remained just high enough. Islanders were waiting with a Bobcat loader to lift and drag the spray-foam trailer off the vessel and up the sandy road into the village. Next came the foam truck. It scraped its metal bumper descending the ramp, but was able to scurry up the beach.
The drive to the Boyntons’ house was uneventful, up a hill, past Monhegan’s one-room schoolhouse and into the dark, piney woods.
The house is perched on a hillside, overlooking the sea. Like many island homes, it rose in stages. Doug Boynton built the main house and subsequent additions between 1974 and 2007. It has a good southern exposure and south-facing glass, which tempers heating demand.
“It’s probably one of the most energy-efficient houses on Monhegan, but that’s not saying much,” Boynton said.
When residents talk about the heating season here, they are more likely to mention the incessant wind than the cold temperatures.
“There’s just no getting away from the wind,” he said. “The wind defines winters here.”
Heating oil isn’t delivered to the island, and most homes are warmed with a combination of fuels, notably wood, propane and kerosene. To stay warm last heating season, the Boynton house burned three cords of wood, at $500 a cord, and $1,200 worth of propane. The electric bill ran roughly $2,500. Inside, a wood stove is centrally located in the living room. An old Rinnai propane heater hangs on the wall. Out back, another ancient Rinnai takes the chill off Alice Boynton’s north-facing painting studio.
Soon the weatherization crew arrived. They installed a blower-door in the front entrance, a device that depressurizes the building to reveal air movement. It didn’t take long to identify outside air pulling through an attic door, the space around the chimney and behind window framing.
In the cellar, workers began tearing out ineffective fiberglass insulation hung between floor joists. They sprayed two inches of foam along the sills and floors, effectively sealing the foundation and adding a consistent thermal value to the floor decking. Outside, another worker stapled weatherstripping to the art studio’s exterior door.
While the Boynton house was being finished, Keith McPherson, owner of Home Energy Anwers, drove to Barbara Hitchcock’s house. Her home, which also is a guest house, is set on a hill that offers views of the village, lighthouse and meadows.
It’s a classic island dwelling, cobbled together with additions dating back to 1905. Hitchcock was in line for the spray-foam treatment. The question was whether the foam truck could squeeze through narrow island trails, to get close enough to the house for the spray hose to reach. McPherson had to check carefully with a tape measure to calculate the distance.
Since last July, the Island Institute has helped set up 150 homes for weatherization, 100 of them on Peaks Island. The group estimates that residents will save a total of $65,000 a year from basic air-sealing alone.
The group also has organized workshops for residents to build interior storm windows. The 100 windows made last winter are expected to cut heating bills by $6,000 a year. Taken together, these energy improvements not only save money, MacDonald said, but add measurable comfort that makes year-round island living more agreeable.
“The islands are just so much more exposed to the elements,” she said. “This is the reality of people’s daily lives. You feel the wind blowing straight through the house.”
Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: