Navigating smart island energy transition
By: ICE Policy and Regulation Team – University of Exeter
Islands are special places. Encompassing almost every conceivable type of climate and landscape, each of the world’s inhabited islands has its own history and unique culture. Alongside this extraordinary physical and human diversity, there are many challenges common to island communities. Islands, united in their isolation and land restrictions, also share many comparable strengths.
As with large national or continental systems, island energy systems are facing change. Many islands rely on dirty and expensive energy sources such as electricity generated with imported diesel fuel. The fight against climate change means that energy supplies everywhere need to become cleaner. The affordability of energy for homes and businesses is a universal concern. An island’s isolation can magnify many of the pressures felt on the mainland. Many low-lying island communities face climate change impacts as an actuality, not a risk.
Not only is the change imperative stronger on islands than it is elsewhere, many of the prescriptions developed for large-scale energy system transition are simply not applicable.
If not connected to a larger electricity system, island communities may now look to generate their own supply from available renewable resources. While many islands have enviable renewable energy potential, it is often concentrated in one or two sources, making a balanced portfolio of supply impossible. Added to this, small island grids often lack the economies of scale that attracts serious investment and, for islands that are part of a larger territory, legal and regulatory frameworks may not reflect the particularities and needs of island life.
However, island economies’ may be conducive to a different kind of energy system change. New ‘smart’ approaches such as enabling the active management of the energy systems – both demand and supply oriented that put consumers on a more equal footing with producers may be very valuable to islanders faced with pricey or unreliable electricity supply. The opportunities presented by innovations in energy technologies and practices including energy efficiency and energy storage may be especially appealing in economies that are reliant on a dominant but volatile industry, such as fishing or tourism. Through a contextual lens, a process of change is pursued where local communities can develop new skills, techniques and business models.
Islands need to take a different path to sustainable energy, one that plays to their strengths. The ICE project offers a guide for isolated communities that are planning to create to a smarter, cleaner energy system. To assist with planning this transition we have developed a methodological approach as a blueprint that can help island or isolated communities navigate a process of reflection, consensus building and technical decision-making as they move towards an environmentally and economically sustainable energy system. At the heart of the approach is the fostering and retention of skills and the business models that can promote long-term social and economic resilience.
By dint of their isolation, island communities are necessarily hardy and inventive. Islands are also places where broader change can start, as microcosms where the social and technological innovations so badly needed by the rest of the world can flourish. Smart islands are surely going to reduce their dependence on the rest of the world for energy resources. Just as surely, the world needs its islands more than ever.