MATINICUS ISLAND PLANTATION — There are few places in America where changing a lightbulb can have as much meaning.

Ben Algeo and Suzanne MacDonald from the Island Institute unload boxes of LED light bulbs for delivery to residents of Matinicus Island, part of a program to help residents save money in a remote community with Maine’s highest electric rates. Tux Turkel photo

Ben Algeo and Suzanne MacDonald of the Island Institute unload boxes of LED light bulbs for delivery to residents of Matinicus Island, part of a program to help residents save money in a remote community with Maine’s highest electric rates. Tux Turkel photo Tux Turkel photo

Matinicus Island, 22 miles out to sea from Rockland, is Maine’s most remote offshore community. Matinicus and Monhegan are the only year-round islands powered by diesel generators. Residents here pay electric rates four times higher than the average Mainer, roughly 65 cents per kilowatt hour.

In October, 610 LED lightbulbs were loaded onto the state ferry for the two-hour ride from Rockland.

An LED bulb uses 75 percent less electricity than an old-school incandescent bulb. On Matinicus, the high electric rates and a special discount program mean that swapping a single 60-watt incandescent for a 9-watt LED can save $30 a year. It’s the most extreme example in Maine of the power of LEDs.

“Islanders use things to completion. They run things into the ground,” said Ben Algeo, who was hired last year as the “Diesel Island Fellow” at the Rockland-based Island Institute. “It typically doesn’t make sense to switch something until it’s done.”

The Island Institute runs programs to support sustainability on Maine’s 14 year-round, offshore communities. Changing out power-hungry bulbs on Monhegan and Matinicus is a first step to reduce dependence on diesel and help make island living more affordable.

The 2,326 LEDs sent this year to Monhegan are expected to save utility customers a total of $15,000 a year. The 600 bulbs now on Matinicus could cut bills by a toal of $5,000. A second shipment planned for this winter of 400 bulbs could trim another $3,000 for the island.

Those savings are especially welcome on Matinicus, which lacks a store and relies on the ferry that arrives twice a month in the offseason. Anywhere from 15 to 60 people live here in winter, mostly lobstermen and their families. That number can double in the summer.

Last month, Algeo and Suzanne MacDonald, the institute’s community energy director, delivered bulbs to the first 23 participants. Grants for the program and a volume discount from the wholesaler, Gilman Electric Supply in Portland, cut the retail price to $1 per bulb.

745507_238131-MatinicusIslandFix11From Matinicus Harbor, they passed a metal-clad building and could hear the roar from the diesel generators inside, the beating heart of the island’s microgrid. They traveled along a gravel road that traces the spine of the two-mile-long island and provides access to the island’s institutions – the church, the post office, the town office and the one-room schoolhouse, where this year’s class of three students was on the playground.

Turning down a dirt driveway that bisects a shaggy spruce forest, they reach Cynthia Young’s home, set on a bluff overlooking the Gulf of Maine. Sea and sky formed a vast, blue sheet, wrinkled on the distant horizon by the Camden Hills.

MacDonald and Algeo dropped off boxes with 65 bulbs, earmarked for the house and for a barn/apartment that’s home to two sternmen. Young and her husband, a lobster fisherman, live here year round. They’d like to cut their winter electric bill, which can run $600 a month.

Maury and Kathleen Colton no longer stay over the winter, leaving in November and returning in April. Even so, a $160 monthly bill isn’t unusual. Maury is a painter and Kathleen makes velvet scarves, so they appreciate how light renders color. They’ve been unhappy with the illumination from fluorescent lights, and MacDonald explains that the 15 LEDs they ordered have a warmer color temperature.

LED light bulb boxes for delivery on Matinicus Island.

LED light bulb boxes for delivery on Matinicus Island. Tux Turkel photo

“I’m going to replace every bulb,” Kathleen Colton said. “I’ll switch them this weekend.”

At the town office, MacDonald and Algeo leave 30 bulbs with George Tarkleson. He’s the tax collector, treasurer and administrative assistant. Tarkleson has mixed feelings about the LED program. The only source of revenue for the island utility is selling electricity.

“It’s a Catch-22,” he said. “If we have fewer kilowatt hours, we are going to have to keep raising the rates.”

The latest town report spells out the dilemma. One entry reads, in part:

“Matinicus Plantation Electric Company has had a rough year. Fewer people here in the winter and summer have decreased revenues. Overdue payments have also increased. Repairs have increased because of the age of the equipment…We keep on applying for grants that would include solar panels and batteries for storage.”

In the long run, LEDs are part of the solar dream. It was inspired by a visit to Naushon, one of the Elizabeth Islands north of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Suzanne MacDonald, community energy director at the Island Institute, delivers boxes of LED lightbulbs to a home on Matinicus Island.

Suzanne MacDonald, community energy director at the Island Institute, delivers boxes of LED lightbulbs to a home on Matinicus Island.

The trust that owns Naushon decided 10 years ago to reduce its dependence on diesel. First they replaced all incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents, the best alternative at the time. Then they swapped old, energy-hogging refrigerators with new, frugal models. Improving the island’s electric grid to reduce power loss over old lines was the next step. Finally they invested in a solar array that sends excess power on sunny days into a large battery bank. Taken together, these measures cut diesel use by 70 percent.

Over the past year, Algeo has been setting the stage for a similar strategy here and on Monhegan, which won a federal grant to upgrade its diesel generator system and switchgear, and install a small solar-electric array. He has been taking inventory of existing lighting and appliances. One finding is that half the homes on Matinicus have incadescent bulbs. Another is that refrigerators, often a home’s largest power drain, are used until broken beyond repair. It’s a lot harder and more expensive to swap out a refrigerator than a lightbulb.

So lightbulbs are the best place to start Matinicus on a path to sustainable energy use. And in the short run, if they could make a dent in the 35,000 gallons of diesel fuel that must be delivered each year, maybe the utility could save some cash.

MacDonald and Algeo finished their deliveries by lunchtime, leaving boxes at the doors of residents who are out fishing. This fall, they’ll take an additional order for a winter delivery, although MacDonald joked about a better distribution system. “If only we could get the Girl Scouts to deliver LEDs, instead of cookies,” she said.