May 12, 2013

Insulation warmly received on Monhegan

With island fuel costs soaring over mainland prices, improved energy efficiency is a boon.

By Tux Turkel
Staff Writer

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.

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Contractors and equipment arrive on Monhegan, via landing vehicle, to take part in an Island Institute program to make Maine island homes more energy efficient. The workers eliminated air leaks in island homes by caulking cracks, installing weatherstripping and applying spray insulation.

Photos by Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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Scott Braley caulks a window frame to make a Monhegan Island home more energy efficient.

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ELECTRICITY: 70 cents per kilowatt hour vs. 15 cents

PROPANE: $5.53 a gallon vs. $2.75 a gallon

FIREWOOD: $400-$500 a cord vs. $220 a cord

KEROSENE: $4.76 a gallon vs. $3.96 a gallon

Source: Examples based on statewide averages and market prices.

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Mike Braley checks a gauge that tests for air leaks.

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Brandon Currie climbs out of a crawl space under a home after sealing air leaks.

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Brandon Currie of C & C Spray Foam of Clinton applies spray insulation to seal leaks beneath a Monhegan Island home.

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