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When it comes to energy use, some say Vashon is doing better

As some of the Island’s leading advocates for energy conservation prepare for their second annual energy fair, they point to a few trends that suggest the situation may be improving on Vashon, a place known for its poorly insulated homes and high rates of energy consumption.

There’s anecdotal evidence. Jason Williams, for instance, who owns Artisan Electric and installs solar arrays on the Island, is busier than he’s ever been. He just hired his second electrician, and his small team, which started out five years ago with about a quarter of their work focused on solar installation, now does almost nothing but solar work. 

But there’s also some empirical evidence to back it up, advocates note. Between 2008 and 2010, Vashon’s residential electric use fell about 7 percent, according to Puget Sound Energy. Throughout its entire service area, use fell 4 percent during that same period.

What’s more, the Island has embraced PSE’s alternative power 

program in growing numbers. A year ago, there were 615 residential customers in the Green Power program, which provides much-needed seed money for alternative energy development. This year, the number has jumped to 723, and Vashon’s participation rate — at 12 percent — is the highest in PSE’s service area.

“Who knew what an energy audit was three years ago?” asked Mary Bruno, a board member of WisEnergy, the grassroots organization putting on Caulk the Rock, an energy fair, this weekend. “Now, it’s part of our lexicon.”

WisEnergy started out three years ago with a goal to get Vashon’s collective energy use down 12 percent by 2012. Now, this small organization, overseen by an executive board of five women, is about to host its second energy fair, called Caulk the Rock. It continues to run its energy hut next to the Village Green. And in ways both big and small, the group believes it’s starting to make a difference.

“We’re pretty aware as an Island,” Bruno said. “And we want to do the right thing. It’s just a matter of helping people to do it. ... That’s what WisEnergy is: We’re sort of an information broker. However small, we’re starting to have an impact. And the Island is getting more aware and taking action.”

By some measures, action on Vashon needed to happen. The reason: In PSE’s 11-county service area, the Island is one of the biggest energy users. PSE officials believe Vashon’s high energy use stems from several factors, including the condition of Vashon’s homes, many of which were built as summer cabins, and the fact that the Island is woodsy and thus cooler than other parts of the region, said PSE spokeswoman MacKenzie McDowell.

Greg Kruse, a general contractor who owns Potential Energy, a company that does energy-related remodeling and retrofitting, said he has seen it with his own eyes over the course of his professional life on Vashon. 

An upbeat man, he put a positive spin on the situation: “Vashon has thousands of wonderful ways to improve its houses.”

Kruse’s company is another sign of how the situation is changing on Vashon. Two years ago, after working for years for a small construction company, he decided to launch his own firm, focused largely on conservation-related remodeling. 

He still builds plenty of new decks and bathrooms, he said. But he’s also become one of the Island’s go-to guys in the energy-conservation scene. Like Michael Laurie, another well-known conservation expert, Kruse does home energy audits. Unlike Laurie, however, he’s also a builder and will make some of the changes he recommends, should the homeowner choose, after he does an audit.

In the last couple of years, he said, he’s seen some houses desperately in need of a conservation makeover — houses where, in a few instances, the annual heating bill topped $8,000. Ironically, one of those houses was the home Mary Bruno shares with her partner Kate Thompson.

Bruno and Thompson, both of whom are on the WisEnergy board, live in an artful, remodeled cottage with wide-plank wood floors and high, white-washed ceilings perched on a grassy knoll above Colvos Passage. Two years ago, as they considered their off-the-charts heating bill — it sometimes topped $800 a month — they decided it was time to call in the experts, and Kruse came over to do an energy audit. 

They found that their forced-air, propane-fueled system was so leaky they were heating their crawl space virtually as much as they were heating their 1935 home. Just how porous were their ducts? Kruse found a “mummified snake” in one of them.

Bruno recalls the audit, when Kruse used a blower door to determine how drafty the house was. “Anywhere you put your hand, you could feel the air coming in,” she said.

After the audit, they decided to have Kruse replace their costly heating system with a ductless one — two pumps that extract heat from the outdoors and use electricity to convert it into BTUs that can heat the home.

Thompson laughed as she described how it works. “It’s magic,” she said.

Since the installation, their energy costs have fallen 50 percent, Thompson said, providing enough savings to recoup their $17,000 investment in five years. But perhaps more important, Bruno and Thompson noted, they’re now walking their talk.

“A, it made sense. And B, if we’re going to tell people they ought to reduce their energy use, we needed to do it ourselves,” Bruno said.

This Saturday, as Bruno and Thompson staff the WisEnergy booth at Caulk the Rock, they’ll likely discuss their own situation with those who ask. But more than that, they hope those who attend will find both the advice and inspiration they need to take the next steps, whatever those might be. 

The fair, said Bruno, “is a place where we can assemble all the people with questions with all the people who have answers. It’s one-stop shopping — connecting people, so that they can take action.” 

And taking action, she added, is what it’s all about.

 

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