Eliakim’s Way – energy-efficient living on Martha’s Vineyard

Eliakim’s Way – energy-efficient living on Martha’s Vineyard

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At Eliakim’s Way in West Tisbury, the owners of eight new homes have the opportunity to generate all of their electricity needs from the comfort of their own living rooms and win cash and prizes in the process.

Sounds like a promo for a reality TV show but in fact a couple of the eight homeowners really are on track to produce all of their own energy needs in the first year of their residency, using energy-efficient technologies designed by South Mountain Co. of West Tisbury.

Each home whose electric utility meters read “zero” or below on June 1 will receive a $400 gift certificate for a local fish market or a one-year membership at Whippoorwill Farm CSA. The cash comes from checks they don’t have to write to buy electricity from the public utility grid.

Eliakim’s Way is becoming a nationally known model for energy efficiency because it uses state of the art energy systems, and also because the homes can monitor details of use to a degree that most projects of its kind do not, South Mountain officials say.

While planning took several years, last March, eight Island residents won a lottery to purchase one of eight energy-efficient homes at affordable prices ($170,000 to $330,000) in West Tisbury on an eight-acre complex at Eliakim’s Way by 250 State Road, opposite Nip ‘n Tuck Farm. Seven winners won a town lottery for the right to buy a South Mountain-built home and an eighth resident was chosen by Habitat for Humanity to build the final home.

Construction planning included a premise by designer and builder South Mountain Co., that building well-insulated homes from the foundation up and powered by solar and heat pump technologies would allow homeowners to self-produce all their electricity. In essence, using their home as a personal power plant, a notion called Zero Energy Possible. Meaning: It’s possible, if you live conservatively, to use zero net energy or even to be a net energy producer.

Certainly freedom from fossil fuels and utility bills is a comforting notion today as we sweat out wars in the Mideast oil patch, nuclear power plant meltdowns, $4+ a gallon gasoline, and the prospect of oil rigs all over the U.S, including our shorelines.

The Eliakim’s Way experience indicates a new reality in energy-efficient living, which fascinates South Mountain officials. As they tell it, a funny thing happened after those homes were built and folks moved in. Energy saving became fun for some of them. Residents began paying attention to energy consumption and developed ways to save energy.

So Eliakim’s Way may also represent a real-life shift in lifestyle attitudes. South Mountain has been closely monitoring energy use in the homes and noticed the homeowner involvement in energy savings. “We were going through the data [on electricity generation and use] in these houses and we thought, ‘Wow, these houses are zero-energy possible. Let’s see if we can do it.’ The incentive piece just came up as part of what we were seeing,” John Abrams, South Mountain president said recently.

Some of the homeowners became increasingly involved in their own energy management. “They liked it. The level of involvement varies and I think the [first-year] results will show it,” he said.

“Engineering, design and construction methods are important but occupant behavior is the giant variable, the wild card, if you will. Not all the homes will achieve zero-energy by June 1, absolutely not. We’re hoping for a couple,” he said.

Noting that few home construction projects are monitored for energy use as closely as Eliakim’s Way, Mr. Abrams said, “The combination of design and construction with data gathering and human involvement has led to something important, that people are learning how to live a low-energy lifestyle.

“Heat pump technology has become the only method we use for heating in our construction because electricity is the only fuel we can make on-site and it’s the cheapest fuel on Martha’s Vineyard today.”

First-hand experience

Matt Coffey, his wife, Christine Conley, and seven month-old daughter Ada Maeve Conley Coffey have been living on Eliakim’s Way for 10 months and haven’t written a check for electricity yet. “Nope, not yet, hopefully, never,” Mr. Coffey said. His is one of two houses that are likely to produce all of their own electricity for heat, light, hot water, and appliances for a full year.

Electricity generated by the home power plant in excess of daily needs goes to the electric utility grid. Homeowners receive credit for the energy applied in winter to offset leaner energy production and when electric use is highest. Derrill Bazzy of Aquinnah, a system designer at South Mountain, sees value for the homeowners. “I’d estimate very conservatively fuel savings of $2,000 to $3,000 a year for homes of this size,” he said.

Mr. Coffey joined South Mountain several months after moving into the complex. “We don’t live by candlelight or anything. We’re here full-time and we really use the house. We keep the heat at 64 degrees, maybe a little lower at night, energy-efficient light bulbs, use the cold water rinse in the washing machines, and turn stuff off when we’re not home. Those kinds of things, low-hanging fruit, really,” he said.

Mr. Coffey is charged with reading meters in his neighborhood homes on a monthly basis, checking use monitors that provide valuable data this company is sharing with energy conservation groups and peers in the construction industry.

“It’s a pretty unique project. Very few, if any, projects monitor use as closely as we do. The data will be helpful to us and to others in the green energy business,” he said.

Bonnie Tilton says she is living proof that living energy-efficiency does not require a PhD in science. A high school guidance counselor by trade, Ms. Tilton has not yet written a check for electricity. “When I first saw the usage monitors, I thought, ‘What do all these numbers mean?’ but I’m figuring it out. I could probably do more but I like my electric blanket and my air-conditioning,” she said.

“This is a beautiful house that literally heats itself and I give South Mountain a lot of credit,” she continues. “They have built not just houses but a neighborhood community here. We all get together every once in a while. I love this neighborhood.”

Want to see how these houses work? South Mountain is offering an open house on Saturday, May 28, from 12 noon to 2 pm, at an energy-efficient home the company is building at 236 West Spring Street in Vineyard Haven. For more information, visit southmountain.com or call 508-693-4850.