One of the nicest things about having visitors is the chance to see the place you live through new eyes.
I had that experience when, to launch the Energy Transitions Initiative Partnership Project (ETIPP) which the town was awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), two very non-bureaucratic people from coastal Maine made a two-day visit to Shelter Island to get to know us.
The improvements that emerge from this program may take years, and as the first step, the Green Options Committee (I’m the newest member) showed them around.
State Assemblyman Fred Thiele (D-Sag Harbor) is said to have referred to our town as “The Independent Nation of Shelter Island,” a reflection of the fact that some Islanders don’t enjoy being told what to do by outsiders who don’t understand the realities of life in this special place.
So it helped that the people helping us secure our energy future came with a strong understanding of island life.
Jamie Cook and Kate Klibansky work for a regional partner of the DOE called the Island Institute, a nonprofit that helps island communities transition to clean, secure, and cost-effective energy systems. Even if you are not the sort of person who gets emotional about energy conservation, you would have found yourself thinking more optimistically about our future after a day with these two.
In the first meeting of the day, I learned that in spite of improvements in the reliability of our electric power, we still live in a place where two or three slender, electrical cables connect us to the mainland — sometimes referred to as “the extension cord.”
Ultimately, the Island Institute will help us move forward with projects to reduce our reliance on energy from outside, and improve our emergency-preparedness and climate resilience, just as they have done for other “Island Nations” such as Martha’s Vineyard and Monhegan Island.
Cook and Klibansky were impressed by things we take for granted. During a walk through the town Recycling Center led by Highway Superintendent Brian Sherman and Highway Superintendent-elect Ken Lewis, everyone admired the sloping greensward of the capped landfill, but around the corner was a sight that stopped Cook in his tracks: “That’s the biggest brush-pile I’ve ever seen.”
It turns out many island communities struggle with disposing of the discarded wood and brush that comes from land development, and although our problem may be more out-sized than most, we’re not alone when it comes to looking for energy-generating solutions.
They met with Bridg Hunt, John A. Michalak and Cliff Clark about how they are adapting the ferries to higher storm surges and dramatic tidal swings. They met Library Director Terry Lucas and saw first-hand that our library is a community space and center for after-school activities, cultural events, and adult education, and learned from Terry how the planned renovation of the library will support their mission in the greenest way.
They met with Chief of Police Jim Read who described the state of our emergency-preparedness, that web of first responders, utilities, medical resources and social services that gets tested every time a big storm blows through, or a pandemic breaks out.
Cook came away impressed. “I can safely say you have probably the most impressive connection I have ever seen between the police and electric utility to make a comprehensive emergency management plan.”
In addition to listening to the leaders of vital town institutions, they hiked in Mashomack, and walked the fields at Sylvester Manor. They scouted parking lots, the Town’s capped landfill and the roofs of public buildings as possible sites for solar panels to generate power.
Sometimes they spoke of how other islands are tackling similar challenges, such as dependence on electricity generated elsewhere and vulnerability to storms.
It was a good start to a project that could further strengthen our resilience, our independence and our quality of life. And at the end of the day, they sat with us at a long table laden with food grown, fished and cooked here, and had a taste of our beloved bay scallops. I made pie.
All of us — the visitors and the visited — agreed that we had a better sense of what makes Shelter Island such a special place, and how it can be even better.