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Green Building News

Where LEDs Make a Really Big Impact

When electricity costs 65 cents a kilowatt hour, the case for energy conservation becomes very powerful

Electricity costs on Matinicus Island in Maine are five times the national average. Matinicus Island is one of two Maine islands where electricity is still produced by diesel generators.
Image Credit: takomabibelot via Flickr

When you pay 65 cents a kilowatt hour for electricity, something as simple as swapping an old-fashioned incandescent light bulb for an LED lamp can add up to big savings. Year-rounders on two Maine islands are finding out just how much.

Under a sustainability program run by the Maine-based Island Institute, and with a volume discount from a Portland wholesaler, thousands of LED lamps have been made available to residents of Matinicus and Monhegan, the only two year-round islands in Maine where electricity still is produced by diesel generators. Electricity costs on Matinicus are five times the national average, and twice the relatively high rates charged by Hawaiian utilities.

According to an article in the Maine Sunday Telegram, 610 LEDs were shipped by ferry last month to Matinicus and sold to residents for $1 each. Another 400 LEDs will be sent this winter, resulting in total savings of $8,000, according to the newspaper. On Monhegan, the 2,326 LEDs sent over this year will help customers save a total of $15,000.

The program will help people like Cynthia Young and her husband, a lobsterman, on Matinicus. They are two of between 15 and 60 people who make the island their year-round home, and they can pay as much as $600 a month for electricity during the winter. The Island Institute delivered 65 bulbs to them recently, which will light their house and a barn/apartment where two other fishermen live.

Savings add up quickly. Assuming the LED would be used for two hours per day, and factoring in the type of incandescent bulb it replaced, the Island Institute’s Ben Algeo predicts an annual savings of $30 per year per bulb on Matinicus. Savings would be even bigger on Monhegan, where the Maine Public Utilities Commission lists the cost of electricity at 74 cents a kWh.

There’s a downside for the utility

Although savings could be significant for island residents, there’s a downside for the tiny utilities that serve them.

“It’s a Catch-22,” Matinicus tax collector George Tarkleson told the Telegram’s‘s Tux Turkel. “If we have fewer kilowatt hours, we are going to have to keep raising the rates.”

Lower sales is one of several problems that the Matinicus Plantation Electric Company mentioned in the latest town report, along with fewer winter residents, late payments, and aging equipment. All those factors are putting more pressure on revenues.

Turkel reports that Algeo has been looking to Naushon island off the coast of Massachusetts as a model for reducing reliance on diesel generation in Maine. There, incandescent bulbs were replaced with compact fluorescents lamps 10 years ago; then old refrigerators were exchanged for newer, more efficient models. Finally, the island invested in a photovoltaic system with battery storage, and taken together these efforts reduced diesel use by 70%.

Still, judging from comments posted after the Telegram article was published November 8, not everyone is

sold on energy-efficient lighting.

“Someone sold them a bill of goods,” one reader said. “Hope they kept their old bulbs. Will need them. We tried LED lights. High failure rates, horrible light, and a constant hum that interfered with our shortwave radios.”

“Ever try to use an LED to heat up a room or an egg incubatory?” another asked. “Or to give a room that nice yellow glow? Even the new ones still hum and interfere with shortwave receivers. Might as well live in a funeral parlor the way LED lights make some folks look.”


  1. STEPHEN SHEEHY | | #1

    Monhegan, not Mohegan.

    I've got a house full of LED bulbs and none of them hum.

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Response to Stephen Sheehy
    Thanks for catching our typo. It has been corrected.

    None of my LEDs hum, either.

  3. Tim C | | #3

    If you have dimmers, LEDs can be a bit of a crapshoot. I buy high quality LEDs (Philips, typically), all advertised as dimmable, and still some of my LEDs on dimmer circuits buzz lightly. The old BR30 bulbs I was getting worked perfectly with my dimmers, but Philips discontinued that model and the new "improved" model blinks on and off when I dim it below halfway.

    I love my LED bulbs and I wouldn't ever consider going back to CFL or incandescent bulbs, but I can definitely see how someone getting cheap, bottom of the line bulbs, or someone who doesn't understand dimmer compatibility or color temperature might end up unhappy with their bulbs.

  4. vensonata | | #4

    Finally, the island invested.
    PV and solar 70% reduction. About time. Amazing they haven't gone further than that. What a delicious micro grid project to play with state of the art PV and batteries. Apparently they still have a few dingbats resistant to l.e.d. though. Perhaps they got some early "buzzy bulbs" and have not recovered their equilibrium yet.

  5. Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #5

    What's financially rational at 65 cents/kwh
    At 65 cents/kwh it's financially rational to buy enough rooftop PV and battery to quit the island grid. If net metering is available it become even more affordable to go Net Zero Electricity, since that takes even less PV than unplugging from the grid entirely.

    At 74 cents it's even more so.

    Even without outright grid-defection, there's quite a bit of load-defection that's financially rational. Like many high-priced island grids, this utility is ripe for the "death spiral" scenario, where more and more billable kwh revenue evaporates, requiring higher rates to cover the sunk costs, which then makes grid/load defection even MORE attractive.

    The power supply solution is going to be renewables + storage, it's only a question of which side of the meter those assets reside, and who gets to control them.

  6. fitchplate | | #6

    LED fixtures vs LED retrofit bulbs
    All of our lights are LED solid state fixtures (not retrofitted bulbs). They are made by several different companies and all are wired into conventional octagon ceiling and sconce boxes. There are several behaviour that are not consistent between brands:

    - Some click or snap at the point of turning on
    - Some have turn on delays and confuse one into thinking the wrong switch was used or the light is burned out (a life of incandescent training)
    - Some hum for a few moments and then it dies out as if warming up
    - Some hum steadily at low level that are not irksome
    - None hum at a high enough volume that is irritating
    - Some are perfectly silent
    - Some flicker unpredictably as if there is an electrical interference or micro-brown out (the flickering led me to check voltages at the meter and the panel)
    - Some interfere with FM radio reception and wireless - WiFi -devices by causing a static hum in the audio of these devices – of the LED lights that interfere, some have the hum and some do not. This interference can come from ceiling lights 40' or more form the device affected while the lights in the same room as the device have no affect on device audio.

    Retrofit bulbs and solid state diode LED's may explain the difference in "humming experience".

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