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Maine’s island dwellers get help staying warm

Facing high fuel bills, Maine’s remote island dwellers are warming up to energy conservation program

Nate Langley of Home Energy Answers installed weatherstripping at a house on Swan’s Island, Maine.
Nate Langley of Home Energy Answers installed weatherstripping at a house on Swan’s Island, Maine.(Joel Page for The Boston Globe)

SWAN’S ISLAND, Maine — Nancy Carter lives alone in the wooden house her grandfather built here 6 miles off the Maine coast nearly a century ago. She chooses to face the frigid gales that make the winter fiercer than on the mainland, and to pay higher fuel prices that make it more expensive.

The reason? “You’ve got saltwater in your blood,” said Carter, a 70-year-old former selectwoman.

But saltwater can’t pay the heating bill, and that’s where Suzanne MacDonald of the Island Institute comes in. Since 2012, MacDonald and the institute have conducted an island-by-island, home-by-home campaign to persuade residents to conserve energy through simple, subsidized repairs that help them stay where they are.

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It’s not easy. Mainlanders bearing gifts with wonky, bureaucratic names — “weatherization,” for one — are greeted warily. And promises that an upfront investment will reap savings later on can breed suspicion among islanders, many of whom are elderly and on fixed incomes.

“If you come across in the boat, it’s almost like you’re an out-of-stater,” said Keith McPherson, a contractor from central Maine who tightens up homes as part of the Island Institute program. “There’s always some reluctance until someone tries it.”

Through persuasion and persistence, the effort is paying off. Three hundred homes from Peaks Island off Portland to the Cranberry Isles near Bar Harbor have joined the program, which MacDonald said delivers average savings of $350 a year. Homeowners first pay $200 for an inspection and same-day fixes such as caulking and weatherstripping.

“The gratification is pretty instant” for islanders who buy into the effort, MacDonald said. “You don’t feel as bad turning the heat over 65.”

On Swan’s Island, where the only way to reach the mainland is by ferry, the converts include Myron “Sonny” Sprague.

A descendant of the original settlers, who came to this remote island after the Revolutionary War, Sprague figured that cold winters — both inside and outside the home — were a frozen-solid fact of life in Maine, which has more houses built before World War II than anywhere else in the country.

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“I was one of those guys who never thought about energy efficiency,” said Sprague, a 73-year-old selectman and lobsterman.

Now, he is using one-third less fuel during the winter and feels much more comfortable doing it. “I just crawl into my recliner,” Sprague said, smiling slightly under a cap from the Maine Potato Blossom Festival.

 Energy auditor Keith McPherson, with Nate Langley of Home Energy Answers, used an infrared camera to check a house for areas of heat loss.
Energy auditor Keith McPherson, with Nate Langley of Home Energy Answers, used an infrared camera to check a house for areas of heat loss.(Joel Page for the Boston Globe)

So far, 33 of the 177 year-round residences on Swan’s Island have joined.

“A lot of people who were skeptical at the beginning are starting to see this is a really good deal,” said Ann Marie Maguire, whose energy costs for a 735-square-foot house more than doubled from $1,730 in 2010 to $3,577 in 2014.

Now, she rallies her neighbors to participate, and some of them are even putting up contractors in their homes.

Turning up the heat has long been avoided in a state with the nation’s highest dependency on home heating oil, the price of which has risen dramatically in the last decade.

In Maine, 63 percent of homes statewide use oil, compared with 32 percent in Massachusetts, where cheaper natural gas is more available. And on the Maine islands, the difference in energy prices is more acute than on the mainland, primarily because of the cost of shipping oil off-shore.

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 Transportation between the mainland and Swan’s Island is by ferry. The island has a population of 177 year-round residences, 33 of whom have joined the energy conservation program offered by the Island Institute.
Transportation between the mainland and Swan’s Island is by ferry. The island has a population of 177 year-round residences, 33 of whom have joined the energy conservation program offered by the Island Institute.(Joel Page for the Boston Globe)

In February, homeowners on Peaks Island paid $3.29 a gallon for No. 2 heating oil; on Feb. 23, the state average was $2.79.

Under the Island Institute program, a typical job involves $750 of work over six man-hours, MacDonald said. A quasi-state agency, Efficiency Maine Trust, contributes $400, the homeowner pays $200, and the Island Institute picks up the rest. The institute defrays the cost of transportation and lodging for the contractors, which can run between $50 and $100 per residence.

“Maine has struggled with high energy expenditures,” said Patrick Woodcock, director of the Governor’s Energy Office. “We’re an outlier in the country, and these islands are an outlier of Maine. It really has been a drain on disposable income from fishermen to individuals who are looking to make a life out there.”

However, steady gains are being made, Woodcock said. A decade ago, about 80 percent of Mainers depended on oil.

Those gains are important for a state, and its islands, where many residents in older homes are latecomers to the efforts to conserve energy.

“Homes are in rough shape in Maine because back in the day when it was a lot cheaper to heat, people didn’t worry so much about insulation,” MacDonald said. “But we love our old homes. There’s great history, and they’re beautiful, and we want to retain that.”

Woodcock applauded the Island Institute, based in the midcoast town of Rockland, for lining up multiple jobs in single trips for cost-conscious contractors. Otherwise, many contractors could not afford to make the journey.

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“Anything that we can get out here that helps us survive is important,” said Carter, the former selectwoman, who is saving hundreds of dollars this winter after making MacDonald’s acquaintance. Without the program, she said, “I wouldn’t have known exactly what to do. I wouldn’t have done the work.”

MacDonald, who lives in Rockland, has become someone many of the islanders trust. On a recent trip to Swan’s Island, MacDonald appeared to be on a first-name basis with everyone she met.

She stopped at the home of John Follis, a 66-year-old carpenter who admitted he needed advice. She chatted with Tom McAloon, an engineer who traveled to Denmark to study efficiencies. And she poked her head inside a Baptist church, where the Island Institute had organized a workshop to build about a dozen storm windows, each of them 9 feet high.

As a result, momentum among the islanders is growing.

“They’re highly motivated,” said Michael Stoddard, executive director of Efficiency Maine Trust.

MacDonald echoed the sense that neighbors — even independent, tight-lipped, stoic Mainers — are reaching out to neighbors. “They’re inspiring each other. We’re just trying to help make it happen,” MacDonald said.

”I was one of those guys who never thought about energy efficiency. [Now] I just crawl into my recliner,” said Myron “Sonny” Sprague, 73, Swan Island selectman and lobsterman. Sprague says he is using one-third less fuel during the winter.
”I was one of those guys who never thought about energy efficiency. [Now] I just crawl into my recliner,” said Myron “Sonny” Sprague, 73, Swan Island selectman and lobsterman. Sprague says he is using one-third less fuel during the winter.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the names of Ann Marie Maguire and John Follis were incorrect. Also, under the Island Institute program, the institute defrays the cost of transportation and lodging for contractors, not the residents.

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