Islands are vulnerable places, battered by climate change, pollution and migration. But a mounting sense of urgency is counterbalanced by the realization that islands offer an important opportunity to find innovative, “hybrid” solutions that combine renewable and traditional energy sources, making them test-beds that the wider world should invest in and learn from.
Since mainland governments are mostly deaf to the plight of islands, leaving them to protect their environment and the quality of the life of their inhabitants on their own, these often remote, small places are now coming together and finding they have more in common than their differing locations and economic, social and historical context would suggest.
Islands are on the front line of contemporary challenges
Island locations capture our imaginations: exotic, often remote places that are home to unspoilt land- and seascapes. Yet minor islands are not just enticing tourist destinations but places where people live and work. They face a very particular set of sustainability challenges, revolving around issues of energy, water and mobility.
- Security of supply issues can arise when it comes to water, electricity or fuel, especially when many islands depend on diesel for power generation
- Islands have a more fragile environment than continental areas because of their limited surface, accelerating depletion of resources, such as forests, water sources, fish stocks and biodiversity
- Their smaller size makes it harder to absorb waste and pollution of any kind, including that generated by transport
- Islands are generally more exposed to the direct effects of climate change, whether that means rising sea levels or weather instability
- Islands are particularly exposed to migrations flows, driven either by conflict or by climate change as we have seen dramatically in the Mediterranean in recent months
Islands represent an opportunity for the rest of the world
And yet, islands are important not only because of the pressures they face but because those very pressures act as a powerful catalyst for innovative and economically efficient solutions. Islands are becoming laboratories for the kind of integrated, hybrid solutions that all of us will need to implement, both in fragile, remote locations and on the mainland.
What is important from this perspective is that islands’ small size tends to favour integrated solutions in which, commonly, power generation from renewable sources is mixed with diesel generation, or renewables are combined with electric mobility or desalination.
For example, investment in desalination stimulates water saving by improving water distribution networks and encouraging efficient management of water resources. When it comes to road transport, it’s easier to adopt electro-mobility because distances are smaller and the advantages generated from the protection of vulnerable environments and savings on fuel costs are even higher than in other places. Benefits are of course greater if accompanied by renewable power generation.
El Hierro: combining wind and hydro power to go 100 percent renewable
The Spanish island of El Hierro, the smallest of the Canary Islands, provides a fascinating example of what we’re talking about. In seeking to meet its target of reaching 100 percent renewable energy, El Hierro is making the most of its natural potential to develop an innovative system that combines wind and hydro production.
The wind-pumped hydro power station is made up of five wind turbines, with total capacity of 11.5 MW, and a new pump storage hydro system, created by turning two natural craters into artificial lakes, one almost at sea level and the other positioned on the hillside above, connected by two pipes almost 3 km in length.
The beauty of the project lies in its ability to store excess energy from the wind farm in the form of water. In normal, windy conditions, the wind farm serves the local population but extra power is used to pump water from the lower to the upper basin. On less windy days, the hydro system can spring into action. The new project will mean the current oil-fired power generation system will only be needed in emergencies, saving the island from buying 2 million euros a year in oil.
A great advantage of El Hierro’s energy model is that it is easy to validate in situ how a project of this kind could be implemented in other places under similar insulated and dependence conditions. It is not surprising that the project has drawn interest from island communities around the world, been studied by local schoolchildren and closely watched by inhabitants and tourists alike.
Finding a single voice to call for support for islands
The Greening the Islands conference recently brought together a group of leading islands – with delegations coming from Italy’s minor islands, the Canary and Balearic Islands in Spain, Greek Islands, the Azores and Malta.
Those islands have discussed and agreed on some key messages that the Greening the Islands conference has summarized in a recommendations document for the Paris 2015 UN climate change conference, calling on national governments and international organizations to actively support their plans to go green. They want support in encouraging:
- Action to preserve islands’ fragile environments and increase their resilience to climate change
- Best practices and investment in research, development and deployment of sustainability solutions on islands, by reduction of red tape and tax incentives
A Greening the Islands Scientific Committee is already working on the next event to identify priorities and best practices.
Islands have strong reasons for being self-reliant and are therefore unique life-size laboratories, capable of demonstrating in the short term the benefits of a transition to electrified transport and renewable power generation. The more groups that join this call to action, the more chance we have of learning the importance of greening the islands.
Lead image: El Hierro Canary Island Spain. Credit: Shutterstock.