Friday, August 7, 2009

A different island, a unique perspective: Lessons from Lake Michigan

A benefit of travel is perspective.

In a visit this week to the remote peninsula and islands of Door County, Wisconsin, I found a tantalizing series of models for island life.

(Image: the windmill next to the Washington Island Electric Cooperative power plant in Lake Michigan.)


Many of the farmers here market their produce direct to customers, via roadside venues of various kinds.

Some market firewood, left at the edge of their properties bundled and with a price tag. Grab a bundle, leave $4.

Some have “U-Pick” operations, in which customers go out into the fields to pick their own cherries or other produce, and pay for what they come out with.

Some have small or large shops, selling produce, art, crafts and processed foods. (A cherry orchard and winery selling fresh cherries, bottled wines, flavored vinegars, jams and jellies, dried cherries, frozen pitted cherries (for baking) and much more.)

The farmers, their families (including kids) and neighbors, work these ventures.

It's a business model that seems to support small family farming. Of course in Hawai'i, it's not only not common, it's illegal without a permit. And permit requests are sometimes denied. Go figure.


Bicycles are all over this resort community. People who stay in condos use them. People who stay in hotels use them. People camping in shoreline parks use them. A lot of businesses have bike racks out front. Roads have wide shoulders in most places.

On Washington Island, where there are no shoulders, the bikes ride down the middle of the traffic lane, and folks in cars pass them when they can. Admittedly it's a small island, and traffic is slow anyway.

Families commonly haul babies and toddlers in bike trailers. (It was amusing to see a biker in full spandex, colorful biking gear and a racing helmet, hauling his daughter in a trailer behind his racing bike.)

In one hamlet, the local visitor association had a rack of free bikes. Take it for a ride, return it when you're done. No rental fee.


A couple of major windfarms are visible as you drive into Door County, heading up the long narrow peninsula that juts into massive Lake Michigan. Their vast propellors sweep arcs across the sky.

Out on little Washington Island, a smaller windmill generates power alongside the fossil fuel generation plant at the Washington Island Electric Cooperative.

This small utility—it has 845 customers and 4 employees—has something else that's interesting, as well. It is one of the few places where the internet is carried on the power lines. In association with IBM, the co-op provides high-speed internet over the community electrical lines.

This technology, sometimes called BPL for Broadband over PowerLine, is described as ideal for small rural communities. Washington Island has only about 800 property owners, of which a third are subscribed to the internet service. For more, see here.

One source said the service is a little slower than top-speed broadband, but 10 times faster than dial-up.

The Washington Island Electric Co-op is also installing, with IBM help and some federal financing assistance, a smart grid, which will enable it to better understand and manage its electric load.

All interesting stuff to folks from islands.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

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