Isles of Innovation: EU encourages community-run renewables on its islands

Six are on the path to self-sufficiency, and 20 more will follow. Islands are an excellent fit for renewables for a number of reasons. Paul Hockenos takes a look

The expension of renewables can promote the energy sovereignty of islands (Photo by
Sheila Sund; CC BY 2.0)

In the age of advanced climate change, islands occupy a unique, though not privileged place: they are directly impacted by extreme weather and rising seas right now, and will be the first to be flooded when the waters rise higher. This is one reason that island populations are acutely aware of the climate crisis and why the EU has initiated a new program called the Clean Energy for EU Islands Initiative, which supports forerunners among Europe’s 2,200 inhabited islands generate their own sustainable, low-cost energy.

Since they’re usually rich in sun, wind, or a combination of the two, islands are obvious locations for renewable energies. Yet they lag behind because they’re very often dependent on mainland energy supplies or expensive, dirty imported diesel power plants on the island.

But, notes Myriam Castanié of the EU initiative’s secretariat, islands are special because as geographically isolated entities, they can be ideal for purposes of experimentation. “Europe’s island communities can be innovation leaders in the clean energy transition for Europe and beyond,” she says.

The initiative itself is something out of the ordinary as EU projects go because some of the most highly regarded civil society actors and climate protection outfits have partnered with the EU on this joint venture. The initiative is managed by Climate Alliance, an NGO that specializes in clean-energy solutions for municipalities and districts;, the European federation for renewable energy cooperatives; and 3E, a renewables consulting firm. And it also collaborates with a wide range of local stakeholders, including the Technical Educational Institute of Crete, University of the Balearic Islands, and the Aeroe Energy and Environment Office.

The initiative has developed a Clean Energy for EU Islands Pledge that obliges island communities to adopt a strategic roadmap for transitioning to community-based clean energy The 26 islands that have already done so – the program can only accommodate this many at first – then have access to the initiative’s technical support team of experts in community-run clean-energy projects.

The Clean Energy initiative wants to assist the islands with the following priorities:

  • reduced energy costs and greatly increased production of renewable energy and the construction of energy storage facilities and demand response systems
  • better energy security for islands by becoming less reliant on imports
  • improved air quality, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and less impact on islands’ natural environments
  • the creation of new jobs and business opportunities, as well as boosting islands’ self-sufficiency.

There are currently six pilot projects underway: in the Aran Islands (Ireland), Cres-Lošinj (Croatia), Ilha da Culatra (Portugal), La Palma (Spain), Salina (Italy), and Sifnos (Greece). These communities are all distinguished by their self-starter attitudes and do-it-yourself approaches in breaking away from fossil fuels and state or corporate energy providers.

Sifnos, for example, located along the Cyclades archipelago in the western Aegean Sea, independently launched its sustainability project on a small scale. In an effort to make Sifnos wholly self-sufficient and renewable, a local cooperative started with two wind turbines and about 335 kW of photovoltaic paneling on the roofs of residential and commercial buildings. The island of 2,600 inhabitants has also set in motion an 8 MW wind and hydro hybrid power plant, which is pending approval.

There are already fully self-sufficient European islands out there, such as the Orkney islands, which were once dependent on coal and gas by way of the Scottish mainland. Now, as reported by The Guardian, the islands are “so festooned with wind turbines, they cannot find enough uses for the emission-free power they create on their own.” Community-owned wind turbines generate electricity for the villages and islanders have e-cars that they charge at no cost. In the near future, car and passenger ferries here will be fuelled by hydrogen, created from water that has been electrolysed using power from Orkney’s wind, wave, and tide generators.

Trend-setters in their own right are the Canary Islands, an eight-island group under Spanish governance located off Africa’s northwestern coast. They’ve been experimenting with renewables for years, for example, with tidal power, pumped water storage, solar thermal collectors and systems, and mobile, floating off-shore wind turbines. The smallest island, El Hierro (pop. 11,000) is called a “clean energy lab” with five wind turbines, two water deposits, four hydraulic turbines, and one pumping station. The storage station is supplied with water by pumps run on wind power.  On average, half of El Hierro’s electricity in 2017 was covered by renewables. In the first half of 2018, the community generated one hundred percent of the island’s renewable electricity for 1,450 hours, saving 3,700 tons of diesel and 12,100 tons of CO2 emissions.

The largest island, La Palma, is home to grassroots activists who continue to push the envelope on sustainable energy production. They’re behind the buildout of PV, mainly for self-consumption, and eventually for using geothermal resources to generate baseload power and stabilise the energy system. But their transition plan also includes energy efficiency and consumption reduction. La Palma’s energy activists want the island to become as smart as possible in energy use of all kinds.


Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

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