Can Bainbridge achieve energy independence?

A Vashon Island environmental research group thinks Bainbridge has a good shot at energy independence.

But Kitsap Sun readers apparently don’t.

My story about Institute of Environmental Research and Education director Rita Schenck’s appearance at the Bainbridge Environmental Conference sparked quite a discussion at the Sun’s Web site this weekend. You can check out the story below or by clicking here, where you can weigh in about Bainbridge’s chances of saving and making enough energy to achieve self-sufficiency.

To learn more about IERE, visit its Web site here.

For the IERE’s energy plan for Vashon, go here and click on “Energy Independent Communities” to download the report.

Energy Independence a Real Possibility for Bainbridge Island
By Tristan Baurick

Bainbridge Island has a better chance than Vashon Island of achieving the dream of energy independence, according to the head of an environmental research group that drafted an island-wide model of energy conservation and production for Vashon.

“We realized that Vashon could create all the energy it needed,” said Rita Schenck, director of the nonprofit Institute of Environmental Research and Education. “I’d bet my life you could do the same here.”

Schenck was a speaker at the eighth annual Bainbridge Environmental Conference at the IslandWood learning center. Attended by more than 110 people, the Association of Bainbridge Communities-sponsored event also featured U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee and state Sen. Phil Rockefeller, both Bainbridge Democrats.

Schenck’s Vashon-based group spent four years and about $500,000 developing a 10-year plan aimed at giving Vashon energy self-sufficiency through largely home-based conservation efforts and widespread use of solar power.

“We found that very simple things — like using compact fluorescent (light bulbs), better insulation and (improved) heating reduced energy consumption on the island by 70 percent,” Schenck said. “All of that was done with proven, simple technologies that aren’t that expensive.”

Solar panels on about half of Vashon’s homes and businesses would produce much of the remaining power needs. During summer months, Vashon could sell access power to nearby utilities and buy it back in the winter when the solar panels produce less energy.

The plan would also save the island’s 11,000 residents about $5 million a year.

But the big question for IERE, Schenck’s group, was how to pull off such an ambitious plan. Similar efforts focusing on tax incentives, nonprofit organization-led programs, and volunteer-driven projects failed to reach enough people or were insufficiently funded.

IERE advocated the creation of a new public utility district staffed by professionals who would install energy-saving insulation, appliances and solar panels.

The project would cost about $40 million but would save $95 million over time, according to IERE.

“Most of these were brain-dead easy things to do,” Schenck said. “We just have to do them.”

But much of Vashon balked at the plan. Requiring a public vote to establish the utility, the measure earned just 36 percent of the island’s support.

“There was very serious opposition,” Schenck said. “They said we were wrong, that we didn’t know what we were doing. Some even put up flyers saying we were going to take their water. It was pretty lame, but it was effective.”

IERE plans to draft a similar ballot measure in 2010.

But Bainbridge could enact an energy independence plan much sooner, Schenck said.

While Vashon is an unincorporated part of King County, Bainbridge’s incorporation as an island city means the City Council could pass a similar plan without a public vote.

“We had to vote to create a new government entity,” she said. “But you’re already incorporated. You don’t have to have a vote on this, but you do have to convince your City Council to vote on it.”

Bainbridge City Councilman Barry Peters told Schenck after her speech that he’d support an energy independence proposal, but that the public would still have to rally behind it.

“Now if you can just get a thousand people to come bang on the door of City Hall saying ‘Do it!'” he said.