A New Energy Course

With the passing of the holidays, winter stretches out before the Vineyard. Islanders bracing themselves for the season’s short days, long nights and pervasive isolation are facing an added burden this year: heating costs forecast to rise twenty-five per cent over last year’s levels.

The sharp spike comes at a bad time, with the national economy slowing after more than fifteen years of seemingly recession-proof growth. Though the Island has been buffered in the past from more severe downturns on the mainland, real estate sales already are declining. Those Vineyarders already living close to the financial edge face the prospect of making ends meet on an Island where the money will flow less freely in the coming year.

In this season, Islanders find themselves hostage to forces mostly or fully beyond their control.

One is winter itself. In New England, the question each year is not whether the winter will be cold, but rather how cold it will be. As high and low pressure systems march across the country, as the jet stream wavers north and south, Islanders can hope that they will catch a break this year, that the Vineyard winter will be mild. But the season easily could turn severe.

Another is the global energy market, tugged and pulled by massive economic forces and the speculators seeking to capitalize on them. As the price of oil has climbed this year, Vineyarders already paying a premium over mainland prices have had little choice but to pay the higher charge, whether to fuel their car or heat their home. Ralph M. Packer, the Vineyard’s largest fuel and gas supplier, anticipates fuel costs will keep climbing.

However unpleasant to receive, higher fuel bills also offer an impetus and opportunity to reexamine old systems and unthinking acceptance of the status quo.

Oil pumped from the ground in Saudi Arabia or Texas is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Vineyarders want to stay safely warm in the winter. If they can economically afford to do so by using less oil, or more alternative energy, they will.

The increase in the price of fuel comes at a time when Vineyarders already are starting to explore wind power as a homegrown source of energy. The decision by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to approve Aquinnah’s proposal to create a townwide energy district of critical planning concern ideally will inspire the remaining Vineyard towns to pursue the same path.

And with oil almost certainly a mainstay of Vineyard home heating for the foreseeable future, organizations such as the Cape Light Compact are offering Islanders ways to use that fuel more efficiently and spend less money in the bargain.

While Vineyarders may now be hostage to global energy markets, they are realizing they need not remain so.