Sustainable Islands

Rita Schenck of the largely rural island of Vashon, Washington, wants the Seattle suburb’s 10,000 residents to be completely energy-independent—producing their own renewable power—within a few years. Soon, her nonprofit Institute for Environmental Research and Education will ask residents to decide how they should combine energy from the sun, wind, composting and tides to wean themselves from fossil fuels. Someday soon, cars will run on island-produced power stored in the form of hydrogen. Sound far-fetched?

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen doesn’t think so. He pitched in $50,000 toward the completed first phase of the effort: cataloging all the ways the islanders use energy, and developing a practical tool (now posted at for communities everywhere to use when taking their first step toward energy sustainability.

Vashon Island’s Point Robinson lighthouse will be wind- or solar-powered, if renewable power advocate Rita Schenck has her way.
Richard Cummins; Corbis / (inset) Helen Huizenga

"Now we need to get to the next phase: making it happen," Schenck said in her Energy Update electronic newsletter in October. "Definitely within two years we ought to see [initial results]," Schenck said later by phone. She hopes the island’s new energy producers, from solar panels to windmills, will be installed by then.

Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation provided a grant to help pay for projects in the near- and long-term. But Schenck is still looking for $12 million to build demonstration projects. In the meantime, her organization is teaching kids about green power, bringing in lecturers on grid-connected solar power and looking to secure a community electric truck (linked to solar cells). Says Schenck: "We are definitely going full steam ahead. Not everything is flashy, but lots of good stuff is happening."

Should she succeed, Schenck hopes her island will become a model. "The only other example [like it] I can think of is an island off Denmark," says Bentham Paulos, program officer of The Energy Foundation in San Francisco.

That island, Samsoe, is taking similar steps, and wants to switch to 100 percent renewable energy within a decade, in part by cutting consumption and increasing energy efficiency. But just 4,400 people live there, and the Danish government, not citizens, decided to make it a demonstration island. On a rather larger scale, Iceland plans a hydrogen-based energy economy.

On Vashon, citizens are leading the charge for renewable energy on their 37-square-mile island, of which 80 percent is forested, 10 percent farmed. And Schenck aims for green energy bills to cost residents the same as current monthly charges.

Schenk’s neighbors certainly seem to like the sustainability concept, now that it’s moving forward: They’re looking at how they could sustainably grow food, use water and deal with solid waste, among other issues, in a separate project called Sustainable Vashon.