New group seeks energy independence for Vashon

Last summer, The New Yorker published a story about Samso, a remote Danish island whose 4,300 residents worked together to become energy independent.

The people of Samso had been reliant on imported oil and coal. But they began insulating their homes, replacing furnaces with heat exchange pumps and installing wind turbines and heating plants that burn straw. In just five years, their island was generating more energy than it consumed.

The Samso story inspired a few Islanders, who began to wonder whether it was possible to try something similar. Could Vashon, like Samso, become a model of energy efficiency?

Since September, a group of seven like-minded Islanders has been meeting regularly to explore alternative energy options for Vashon. Their new organization, WisEnergy, will make its debut at next month’s Strawberry Festival.

WisEnergy is a nonprofit affiliated with Sustainable Vashon. Its original plan was to replicate the Samso model — to nudge Vashon away from its fossil fuel present (oil, propane, coal-fired electric) and into a cleaner wind- or geothermal- or solar-powered future. WisEnergy started with a receptive audience.

Islanders are already installing solar panels and geothermal heating systems. But the group quickly discovered that pushing new sources of energy is the second part of its challenge. The first part is reducing the amount of energy the Island currently consumes.

According to a 2005 study by the Vashon-based Institute for Environmental Research and Education (IERE), Vashon residents use significantly more energy than the average Washington state household — a per capita usage that in 2001 put the Island 46 percent higher than the state average. Vashon’s usage has fallen since then, but according to IERE it is still considerably higher than statewide averages.

A major cause of Vashon’s excess consumption is the Island’s aging and poorly insulated building stock.

“It doesn’t matter how green your heating source is,” says WisEnergy spokesperson Lynn Greiner, an attorney and Vashon resident. “If heat is leaking through your windows and walls, you’re still wasting energy.”

WisEnergy decided to focus first on energy education and conservation stepping stones to an eventual, Samso-style transformation. The group’s short-term goal is “12 by ’12.” It wants to cut Vashon’s energy use 12 percent by 2012 through a combination of teaching and preaching about the benefits of weatherization and other simple energy-saving techniques.

“Most people on Vashon already care about sustainable energy,” says Greiner. “They just aren’t sure where or how to begin doing something about it. We want to help them sort through all the information that’s out there now about energy audits and sustainable building materials and rebates for energy upgrades so they can start to take action in their own home or school or business.”

WisEnergy launches two big initiatives this year. The ball gets rolling at the Strawberry Festival when the group unveils its new WisEnergy Center, a portable, barebones mini-house built by Islander Al Bradley. During the next few months, WisEnergy’s architect Deborah Reilly will oversee a retrofit of the wooden house using a variety of inexpensive, all-green, energy-efficient products, such as low-energy lights and the latest in safe, warm and environmentally friendly insulation.

After its Strawberry Festival debut, WisEnergy’s Center will become a fixture at local gathering spots, where it will serve as a public laboratory and library for conservation conversations, ideas, products and resources. Islanders curious about low-cost energy audits, certified local contractors, weatherization financing and rebates and more need go no further than the little house that Al built — and that WisEnergy is making green.

The next big WisEnergy event happens on Sept. 12, when the group will host Vashon’s first community Energy Fair — a day-long festival of energy exhibits, workshops, green home tours, live music and good food.

The WisEnergy team is already working on a slate of energy programs and projects for 2010. These include a series of films, readings, group discussions and community workshops, more energy upgrades — and hopefully a staffer — for the WisEnergy Center and a line of WisEnergy conservation products.

The residents of Samso Island began their journey to sustainability in the late 1990s.

They started slowly. Casual conversations among neighbors and some informal seminars on wind power led to the formation of energy cooperatives and finally to a community that actually exports energy.

“We’re just getting started,” says Greiner, who had her very first energy audit last month. “But making Vashon energy efficient and energy self-sufficient is doable. We’d love for people to join us.”

­— Mary Bruno is one of the Islanders involved in WisEnergy.

To volunteer, offer ideas or get updates, visit the group’s Web site at

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