How Islands Can Act as Sustainability Test Sites
Written By: Shelby Deegan
Edited By: Jackson Hejtmanek
In recent years, island nations around the world have been taking bold steps towards energy independence by installing self-sustained power grids. Islands are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels, increased storms and natural disasters, and limited access to traditional energy sources. These factors along with their isolation, size, and dependence on fossil fuel imports, mean the cost of electricity on islands can be up to ten times as high as the cost on the mainland (Barker and Dignan, 2023). As a result, many island communities have turned to renewable energy as a way to reduce their carbon footprint and become more self-sufficient, avoiding the high costs of transporting fossil fuels. In doing so, these islands can act as test sites for sustainable solutions that could be scaled up and applied on the mainland (Barker and Dignan, 2023).
One example of experimentation with a self-sustained power grid is Waiheke Island, located in New Zealand's Hauraki Gulf, just off of Auckland. The island has a permanent year round population of around 9,000 people, growing to 45,000 in the summer (EV Talk). For many years, it has relied on two 6 kilometer long undersea cables routed to the mainland for its electricity supply (Vector). This system is highly vulnerable to outages caused by bad weather or car accidents. Efforts to be less reliant on this volatile power source have resulted in uptake of renewable energy forms, mainly solar. Some community buildings on the island have switched to solar power. For example, the library installed a system of 80 solar panels which reduces the island’s total carbon emissions by 92 tonnes, or the equivalent of planting 2,840 trees in urban areas (SolarCity).
There is also a push on Waiheke to become the first EV residential island, meaning all vehicles on the island would be electric (Electric Island Waiheke). Accomplishing this would require about 7,000 conventional cars, buses, and trucks being replaced (EV Talk). Although the goal may seem lofty, significant progress is being made: in 2019, Vector Limited, an electricity and gas distribution company based out of Auckland, secured a grant through the Government’s Low Emission Vehicles Contestable Fund (LEVCF). The grant allowed Vector to install and manage at least 80 electric vehicle (EV) smart chargers in homes, as well as ten public EV chargers and one mobile EV charger (Vector).
Even the ferries to the island are being electrified. Fullers Group Limited, who runs the ferries, is considering introducing electric ferries by 2025, and aims to have electric shuttle buses serving the island’s ferry terminal (EV Talk). The electrification push has even spread to ferries servicing mainland regions of Auckland. Auckland, being a coastal city, has an extensive ferry network as part of their public transport system. Boat Builders McMullen & Wing CEO Eaglen has stated they are leading a collaboration of New Zealand firms developing electric ferries for New Zealand (EV Talk). They are shooting for a zero emission commuter fleet by 2025 (EV Talk). This link in trends between islands and the mainland is one worth paying attention to. The push for things like EVs and electric public transport often comes sooner on islands because they are faced with the consequences of continued reliance on detrimental energy forms earlier and their attempt to find solutions is vital as the mainland will soon be faced with the same dilemma.
It’s not just Waiheke: many other islands around the world are making more progress in sustainability than their mainland counterparts. Madeira, a Portuguese island in the Atlantic Ocean, has a population of around 260,000 people, and the island's rugged terrain makes it difficult to utilize traditional energy sources (European Commission). To address this issue, the government of Madeira has invested heavily in renewable energy, especially wind and solar power. The island is expected to soon be able to produce 50% of its energy from renewable sources, eventually increasing to 70% in the long term (European Commission).
Naxos Island, located in the Cyclades archipelago of Greece, is also working towards energy independence. The island has a hybrid power plant, which generates electricity from wind and solar power. The power plant is connected to a network of batteries and can also run on alternative fuels if needed. The project has helped to reduce the island's dependence on fossil fuels and has contributed to the island's economic development (Ecosystemic Transition Unit).
The Hvaler Islands, located off the coast of Norway, are another example of a self-sustained power grid. The islands are home to around 4,500 people, and they have installed a microgrid that generates electricity from wind and solar power. One of the goals within their larger renewable energy project is to explore a model in which citizens, associations, businesses and the government can jointly own a windmill facility (Marija, 2019).
Overall, islands around the world are leading the way in renewable energy adoption and self-sufficiency. Although island life may seem far off from most of us living on the mainland, perhaps we should all be paying attention to the progress being made in these microcosms as they may represent the change the rest of the world needs to rapidly adopt. Their projects demonstrate the potential for communities to become more self-sufficient and reduce their carbon footprint by investing in renewable energy. As the effects of climate change continue to be felt around the world, it is likely that more and more communities will look to these islands as models for sustainable energy solutions.
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