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Community-owned wind power and electric cars: How the Aran Islands want to go green

The islands are aiming to become “energy independent” by 2022.

File photo of a wind turbine
File photo of a wind turbine
Image: Shutterstock/PixelDarkroom

THE ARAN ISLANDS have published a clean energy transition agenda which aims to make life on the islands more sustainable.

The islands – Árainn, Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr, located at the mouth of Galway Bay – want to install community-owned wind power, retrofit homes, and decrease their dependence on fossil fuels for transport, among other plans.

In February, it was announced that 26 European islands would take part in an “energy transition process” in a bid to become more self-sufficient and sustainable.

Six islands were due to publish their plans in the summer as part of the programmes’ pilot stage, but this deadline was extended as the plans took longer than anticipated to develop.

A spokesperson for the European Commission told TheJournal.ie the deadline was pushed back due to the scale of the initiative.

“We adjusted our activities and plans of delivery and gave the islanders and transition teams more time to develop them,” the spokesperson said.

The islands published their plans this week to coincide with the fourth Clean Energy for EU Islands Forum which took place in Split and Hvar in Croatia from Wednesday to Friday.

The Commission spokesperson welcomed the fact the plans have been published prior to a United Nations summit on climate change taking place in Madrid next month.  

“Six EU islands are setting an example for turning decarbonisation into a reality, drawing on the resources of their citizens,” they said.

‘Energy independent’ 

The Aran Islands are aiming to become “energy independent” by 2022; eliminate their use of fossil fuels, in particular for heating; have all homes insulated to a sufficient level; reduce their dependence on fossil fuels for transport and switch to sustainable fuels.

The Aran Islands Energy Co-op – also known as Comharchumann Fuinneamh Oileáin Árann Teo or CFOAT -  helped develop the transition plan. Avril Ní Shearcaigh, manager of CFOAT, said local stakeholders have shown “great support” during the process. 

A workshop was held on the Aran Islands in late June to gather the views of the local community, businesses from both the islands and the mainland, and representatives of the Irish government.

“Many attended the workshop here last June and their valuable input was incorporated into the document,” Ní Shearcaigh said.

She told TheJournal.ie that organisations from all three islands, including local development co-operatives and local businesses, made up the ‘transition team’ which was lead by CFOAT and was responsible for developing the plan. 

Ní Shearcaigh said the plan “acts as a road map for the islands as we pursue our goal of carbon neutrality by 2022, and reflects the enthusiasm and drive of our community to be more sustainable and self-sufficient”.

Wind power 

The islands’ electrical demand is met by a sub-sea cable from the mainland, which comes to Árainn and then branches off to the other two islands Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr.

There was a power outage on the islands in August 2016 when the cable to the mainland was cut. It took several days before temporary generators were brought in, and two months before the cable was reconnected.

“This caused a lot of hardship, isolation and disruption on the islands as communications were also cut. It badly hit the local economy as visitors left and bookings were cancelled,” the reports notes. 

cable Source: CFOAT

The islands spend over €300,000 annually buying electricity from the main grid.

The plan states that an investment in community-owned renewable electricity generation on the island could “invert this drain of island resources” by collecting revenue from such a scheme into a fund for island development projects.

Wind energy has been identified as one of the main ways the Aran Islands could reduce carbon dioxide emissions and be more automonoms in terms of energy production. 

Since CFOAT was set up in 2012, reintroducing wind power on the Aran Islands has been one of its priorities. Two sites, one on Árainn and one on Inis Meáin, are being considered as potential locations for a wind turbine. 

“CFOAT will fully consult with the public along every step of the way and no formal application for planning permission will be lodged to the local authority unless there is widespread public support,” the plan states.  

Electricity and transport 

The population of the Aran Islands is about 1,300 people but this rises by 200% in the summer, peaking at approximately 3,900.

The islands have no physical connection to the mainland, and the only means of transport is by sea or air. There is no car ferry.

Passenger ferries and planes run at least two return journeys daily in the winter months, and far more frequently during the summer. Large goods and shipments of supplies are transported by cargo ferry from Galway city three times a week when the weather allows.

Sea transport via the ferry is the biggest single energy demand related to the islands – over half of the islands’ CO2 emissions are due to maritime transport. The plan notes that decarbonising ferry transport will require switching from diesel fuel to electricity, hydrogen or a hybrid solution.

“Replacing ferry vessels requires a significant investment. Many low-carbon technologies are also still under development and will require additional research before their costs can come down. Replacing the ferries with a low-carbon alternative is therefore a particularly cost-intensive undertaking,” the report states.

It adds that the cargo shipping industry “could assume the role of innovator” and possibly be supported by a government contribution at national or European level.

The Aran Islands are part of two EU-funded projects – SEAFUEL and HUGE – which are examining if hydrogen could replace crude oil as an energy source for islands. 

energy Source: CFOAT

CFOAT said it will link the three operating ferry companies and the department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, which subsidises the Aran Islands ferry service, with relevant EU partners in a bid to develop “a realistic long-term transition strategy”.

In terms of eliminating the need for fossil fuels for transport on the islands, the plan notes the need to increase the number of electric vehicles for both public and private transport, as well as promoting cycling. 

Transport on the islands mainly depends on fossil-fuelled powered cars. The report notes that there are about 350 vehicles on Árainn and Inis Meáin.

“Because the islands are small – it takes about 17km to traverse Árainn, the largest island – they are well suited for electric vehicles, even if those vehicles have a limited range,” it adds.

Twenty other European islands, including Cape Clear Island off the Cork coast, are due to publish energy transition plans by summer 2020.

Following the workshop on Aran Islands in June, European Commission representatives held a site visit on Cape Clear where a transition team developing its agenda.

The Irish government’s Climate Action Plan requires each local authority to devise a plan aimed at tackling climate change

Each council must establish a procedure for “carbon-proofing” major decisions, programmes and projects, including investments in transport and energy infrastructure.

They will be required to deliver a 50% improvement in energy efficiency over the next 10 years, and ensure all suppliers provide information on their carbon footprint along with steps they plan to take to reduce its impact.

This will include deep retrofits of local authority buildings and social housing stock, cycle network plans for all major cities; sustainable transport for all cities with more than 75,000 people; training for local authority staff; and the roll-out of electric vehicle charging networks.

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Órla Ryan

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