HYLANDERS – Energy Islands, Rathlin and Valentia’s Journey

Hylanders – Energy Islands how the Islands of Rathlin and Valentia confronted with a number of energy challenges due to their specific geographic and climatic conditions are seeking to address this unbalanced seasonal energy demand, Just ahead of the normal tourist season

BOTH Rathlin Island and Valentia Island are now having to learn to adapt to deal with energy demands in 2020 to ensure they remain areas of attraction and interest.

The two islands, one off the coast of Co Antrim and one off the coast of Co Kerry are remote locations that attract a lot of interest from their respective mainlands. But  when we look at the  percentage increase in energy demand during the tourist season and then equate the CO2 figure there are worrying questions to be answered.

Colum O Connell, Chairman of the Valentia Energy Group relates: “In the last census it was recorded that Valentia have 653 houses on the island, 255 of these were classed as full time dwellings and 302 were classified as holiday homes. The fact that we have more holiday homes than dwellings is a telling statistic and we could expect a significant increase in energy demand during holiday periods resulting in a proportional increase in Co2. ”

Michael Cecil, Rathlin Development and Community Association Chairman forsees similar problems but is confident that hydrogen can produce a solution, saying: “The tourist season does cause a large increase in ferry traffic, the recently completed Island energy audit showed the ferries to be Rathlin’s biggest producer of carbon emmisions from diesel fuel, equating to 800,000 kg of CO2e, 400,000 kg of that being emmitted June-August. Moving to hydrogen powered ferries would instantly cut Rathlins carbon footprint by 50%.”

As the islands are at the furthest extremeties of the energy network they are extremely energy vulnerable. This vulnerability leads to many insecurities in population stability, transport, heating, tourism and more. Indeed then do the two islands perhaps feel that they are isolated in terms of network infrastructure ? Colum argues: “Our very location makes the infrastructure a huge challenge. In a report commissioned by the Valentia Energy Group it was noted that Valencia’s nearest 38Kv substation is connected to the wider network via a 38Kv circuit. And it is estimated that there is limited capacity remaining in the substation, approximately 6MW. The distribution lines are limited in their ability to carry heavy loads and are not likely to get upgraded any time soon and the limited capacity does not lend itself well to local projects connecting to the grid. South Kerry does not have a natural gas pipeline also. This all points to the opportunity of local communities being enablers for local production for their own energy needs. In the latest version of the Renewable Electricity Support Scheme, it was highlighted that the Minister is supportive of individuals and communities to be able to generate their own power. It of course has to be green power. This is a positive message and lends itself to our strategy to become energy independent on Valentia.”

Government are now not sitting back however and are definitely getting involved in the green journey. In May 2020 there were reports that a £11 m fund to assist the Midlands area of Ireland to move away from peat extraction towards green energy jobs and enterprises with calls for funding to be increased to £25 m next year was in process.  The Just Transition Fund is for retraining staff from ESB and Bord Na Mona plants being decommissioned and to consider proposals for new green jobs and enterprises in the region. The Irish Times reported on May 23: ‘The Midlands should become a major hub for renewable energy, and act as a second location for businesses  based in coastal irish cities, according to Just Transition Commissioner Kieran Mulvey.`

Also in May three Southern political parties were discussing how the EU green deal could be used to invest in floating offshore wind turbines to allow excess energy to be exported. The turbines idea is out there, could it work in relation to Valencia. Colum offers his opinion : “It is broadly known that the most effective means to generate hydrogen is from wind. At a  government level, they realise to reach their renewable targets, they need to develop significant levels of wind energy and the best option is to go offshore. In Valentia, we support this, and we believe the opportunities off the coast of Valentia would be significant.”

Up north Michael Cecil alludes to the situation on Rathlin mentioning a  gap in network infrastructure  around telecommunications and broadband, more so on remote parts of the Island.

The bigger picture however for both these islands is that those wanting change very much regard decarbonisation as being vital as Michael Cecil points out : “Residents on Rathlin are very in tune with climate change and carbon impacts, all born from a high awareness of the beauty and nature that surrounds them and the need to protect that.”

Chris Milligan associate in the energy team at law firm Arthur Cox pointed out in December 2018 that the local energy strategy formulated by the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland reflects this through focus on the ‘three Ds’ , decarbonisation , digitalisation and decentralisation.

Likewise Colum O Connell in Kerry points out why there needs to be more emphasis on explaining decarbonisation, saying: “We believe so and to address this, we have incorporated an education workstream into our group which will effectively establish a branch of ‘Cool Planets’ on Valentia. The goal is to offer a curriculum linked education programme, corporate training (online and offline) and team building events. Obviously the role hydrogen has to play in that decarbonisation effort will be key.”

The two islands are very much on the same page with regard to a new green hydrogen future but those involved in their hydrogen projects both also agree there should be more financial incentives for using hydrogen. Hydrogen is a game changing technology and projects like GenComm can steer people in a direction or at least suggest the possibilities. The possibilities include the work of GenComm outputs such as the Community Hydrogen Forum, the Decision Support Tool and Hydrogen Ireland. Momentum is gathering among the big companies embracing the likes of Hydrogen Mobility Ireland but for islands to start adopting and become more sustainable places financial incentive is needed.

Colum firmly says: “No question about it. The adoption of hydrogen across the globe is at an unprecedented level. The recent EU green deal package has allocated in excess of £50Billion for development of hydrogen infrastructure and research. But yet we have not seen major policy introduced at a government level incorporate hydrogen to the same levels across the globe. Incentives for hydrogen will raise awareness to the opportunities it can bring in a green energy transition. The community of Valentia and the wider south Kerry community have expressed a strong interest in adopting hydrogen as an alternative energy source.”

From a Rathlin point of view, Michael Cecil says: “Yes I believe, as with all emerging technology, there needs to be incentives to create a market and encourage early adopters. New forms of generation and consumption need consumers, early adopters need security of supply at a competitive rate.”

Claire Hanna , the SDLP MP said on a recent Ulster Business podcast  that in terms of the current COVID situation there is a consistent view among economists that we need to invest our way out of this.  Michael is realistic saying: “Quick fixes around energy reduction through home insulation, upgraded domestic and commercial heating plants. Promotion of electric vehicles and possibly electric bicycles for the tourism market would all have a positive impact.”

The geographical location is also a big part of the ongoing energy debate for both islands.  Michael makes the point: “What we do wish to see is more experiential tourism and greater promotion of sustainable tourism. Venues that encourage immersion, education and participation are likely to encourage visitors to stay at a location for a longer period of time and will thereby make a greater contribution to local economies.  This will be particularly important in the post Covid-19 recovery period when a focus on holidaying at home and outdoor recreation are likely to remain to the fore. Rathlin is keen to capitalise on the opportunities brought about as a result of eco-tourism and Hydrogen and green energy can very much play its part in this.”

Michael admitted tourist numbers visiting Rathlin were growing year in year for almost 10 years. In August 2019 the then President of the NI Hotels Federation , Gavin Carroll was on record as saying that more hotels were needed on the north coast adding: “We can’t complain about visitors bussing back to Dublin when their overnight options are very limited.” This year down south on May 20 Ruth Andrews, the current Chairwoman of the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation, was appointed independent chair of a taskforce charged by the Minister for Tourism Shane Ross ,charged with coming up with ways of adapting and rebooting the tourism industry that has been battered by the COVID 19 period. This Chairwoman of the Irish Tourism Recovery Taskforce may not have all the answers but the taskforce she now leads will endeavour to discover as much as possible. Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, Howard Hastings from the famous Hastings family of hoteliers pointed out in 2018 that tourism has a great story to tell. Michael Cecil would back up the thinking that (eco tourism) ‘heritage tourism’ is vital and needs encouraged, that Rathlin needs to still be thought of in that way saying: “As mentioned previously we are keen to attract tourists/visitors that wish to learn and immerse themselves in what we have to offer – flora and fauna, sea life, geology, history, our built and natural heritage, island life as well as new developments involving technology (Broadband, renewables etc).”

Six years ago over 100 delegates attended the latest Northern Ireland Tourist Board Destination Insight examining the ‘experience potential’ of the Causeway Coast and Glens’ Held at the Marine Hotel in Ballycastle, near Rathlin, the event highlighted the experiences the Causeway Coast and Glens landscapes, culture, people, stories, heritage and legends can deliver for a wide range of visitors. Michaels heritage tourism thinking has been on the agenda for a while now, it has to now be embraced as a matter of need.

Heritage tourism and its potential benefits is something Valencia are only too aware of too. Colum O Connell says: “Valentia is renowned for its role in becoming the centre of global communications  when the first transatlantic cable operated between Hearts content in Canada and Valentia. For 100 years Valentia was a  telecommunication hub, and the local community are looking to ensure that heritage is preserved and managed as it moves closer to getting UNESCO world heritage recognition. Though the cable station is now closed, with our Energy Strategy, we hope to re-establish Valentia as a hub once more, but this time in the context of Green Energy. Innovation will live long in the future of Valentia.”

 Looking positively to the future in the coming period, Colum is also fully aware of something that can offset Valencias  current energy challenges saying: “We are currently registered as an SEAI Better Energy Community and as a means to follow on to our energy masterplan , we are going to apply for the SEAI Better Energy Community grants to incentivize the implementation of better energy initiatives on the island.” When asked should there be more support for SMEs, small and medium enterprises in your area that would encourage them to more likely adopt the hydrogen model ? Colum is definite saying “Short answer yes ! At the end of the day the impact of energy on an SME or enterprise’s bottom line is what counts. The cost of producing hydrogen has reduced significantly in the past and is forecasted into the future. However to be competitive with carbon intensive alternative, the early adoption of hydrogen should be incentivized for these types of companies.”

Hydrogen can drive a green recovery and the economy can benefit too. There will need to be more support for SMEs, small and medium enterprises on Rathlin that would encourage them to more likely adopt the hydrogen model argues Michael : “Yes again through incentives. There is a piece of work required around explaining and showcasing emerging developments in the hydrogen energy field.”

There would appear to still be a need for public meetings between those well travelled in the hydrogen journey and those who want to know more. Energy sustainability challenges exist across Europe but here on these two irish islands the groups involved in making change want to lead as an example of what can work.

Rathlin can then become a hub for renewable energy, an example of what can work suggests Michael saying: “Yes, Rathlin is very much a microcosm of wider society – if we can demonstrate energy reduction, energy efficiency and renewable generation using a mix of technology and fuels then all of that can be rolled out on the mainland.”

The COVID 19 crisis has changed everything of course, all of our lives have been affected. In the aftermath of  COVID staycations will now be more popular, people may want to stay on Rathlin more. This adds to the energy challenge. This energy usage question is tackled head on by  Michael who says: “We would be hopeful that any new builds or renovation of existing housing stock would have efficiency and carbon reduction inbuilt at the planning stage – developments in hydrogen and other green fuels will further offset any increase in overnight population.”

With the hydrogen debate becoming a bigger one all the time there is an even bigger debate raging out there all the time which everyone from the media to the common man has a take on, what part does climate play in future energy demand ? These Hylanders facing their own unique energy challenges see the bigger picture of what they are aiming for in the next few years. Michael on Rathlin says: “During the covid outbreak and subsequent industry shut downs many people have noticed and remarked on an improvement in air quality and a bounce back of nature. We would hope that difference has an impact as the world emerges from covid. Higher awareness of man made climate change should reduce average energy demand and perhaps mitigate some of the predicted global warming. “ The green journey of Rathlin Island and Valentia Island will make a difference!