Think of those things that matter most to a community: quality education, healthcare, emergency services, places of worship, land and water management, a healthy ocean, history, a library, food, a gathering place”¦  We want communities where we can live, work and educate our children.

Each of these essential aspects of a community has advocates. The friends of the school will advocate for programs and funding. A futures group might focus on economic development. Civic groups are filled with volunteers with wide ranging interests who step up year in and year out to ensure that the key cultural, economic and environmental institutions in a community are healthy.

But what about energy?

Energy is essential to community sustainability. Energy is certainly a complex issue involving supply, distribution, transmission and consumption. This complexity, paired with government regulation and large-scale corporate ownership of supply, begins to explain why energy exists largely beyond the realm of civic engagement.

The scale of the industry and the reality that energy is a matter of national security speaks in part to why energy-oriented community institutions don’t exist (unless you have your own electric cooperative). However, when it comes to community sustainability, we can’t expect that decisions made in the national interest will always allow remote communities to survive, despite the best efforts of good people at USDA and the Department of Energy to develop flexible programs to meet remote community needs.

Then how do you create a cohesive community voice and organize actions to address local energy needs? Here in Maine, I think we are on to something.

Community-based approaches to energy efficiency begin to lay the groundwork for taking back local control of energy. Over the past few years, I have watched with interest as Suzanne MacDonald and Brooks Winner of the Island Institute Community Energy Team, along with many island community leaders, have begun to address this challenge.

They, like many others in Maine, spent years helping organize window insert- building workshops. The high cost of heating oil paired with the oldest housing stock in the country meant people were eager to learn how to undertake these improvements.

Although people sign up individually to build the window inserts, the window building happens communally. The workshops laid the groundwork for civic groups to form.

What Suzanne and Brooks did next was truly innovative. They took the communal excitement created by window building and turned it into a community wide interest in home air-sealing and insulation—and they brought in Efficiency Maine as a key partner. They have begun to shape public energy efficiency policy in the process. 

The result: Weatherization Weeks, which have been covered extensively in the pages of this paper and many others. Energy auditors and weatherization professionals—spray foam, cellulose and more—are ferried out to island communities to spend a week insulating as many homes and public buildings as possible. 

In a state rich with islands, both real and metaphorical, this has attracted the attention of Maine’s energy leaders who see this model as essential to ensuring that homeowners have access to the energy efficiency programs offered by the state.

While much of the news celebrates the number of homes and public buildings impacted through this work—more than 240 homes on seven islands have been served to date—what is less obvious is that a new form of civic organization is emerging focused on the energy future of the communities where this work has taken place.

Once in place and having had success addressing a common community energy consumption challenge, these community energy committees are willing to take on bigger questions about the future of their energy supply, distribution and transmission. In many cases, these community groups are beginning to consider how to integrate alternatives into their local energy picture in ways that achieve both individual and community benefits. For example, Peaks Island is developing a community-wide approach to installing heat pumps.

As with every community institution, it takes the vision and persistence of committed people to ensure our communities thrive. Along the Maine coast, our energy supply is becoming a matter of civic interest and engagement. Once again, Maine’s islands communities are providing a model approach that can benefit others in Maine and beyond. 

Rob Snyder is president of the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront. Follow Rob on Twitter @ProOutsider.