Valentia and Rathlin Island Communities Showcasing Innovative Solutions for Clean Energy Transition

From left Colum O Connell, Chairman of the Valentia Energy Group and Michael Cecil, Rathlin Development and Community Association Chairman at Reenard with the Valentia ferry pulling away and Knightstown, Valentia in the background.

‘The world is a cloud of confusion and sound, greed and false leaders and meanness confound, the heart feels a tide rise, and Rathlin stays true, drawing you back to the Rue’.

The Rue Lighthouse on Rathlin has helped generations navigate their way to safety on the high seas. Now Rathlin is using the Rue and Valentia the lighthouse at Cromwell Point as beacons for journeys of a different kind. The lighthouses are beacons of the green energy Hydlanders projects and they will demonstrate to Europe how to navigate its way through the fossil fuel cloud, out of the confusion of the climate crisis, beyond the false carbon fog to a green energy future that lies just over the horizon. A new green future for Europe of energy security, energy independence, resilience and the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution powered by the low carbon sector.

Energy security and energy vulnerability are two sides of the same coin. Ensuring access to affordable and reliable energy is essential for island communities and as Rathlin and Valentia look to develop a low carbon future it is especially important that this energy is from a sustainable source. Hylanders is an energy project that seeks to drive major changes in how we produce, manage and consume energy for remote communities..

Hydrogen is an energy vector which is applicable across multiple sectors including transport, industry and heating. It is of particular interest in those communities at the end of the energy supply chain as such sectors will be a significant component in their decarbonisation journey.

Of course both Rathlin and Valentia have a rich history of innovation as  Michael Cecil, Rathlin Development and Community Association Chairman explained: “Thousands of years ago porcellanite axe heads cut and shaped on Rathlin were transported or traded across the isles and onto the European continent. Instincts of survival and improvement continued to carve community resilience through the centuries and populations have survived on islands like these through their own nerve and ability to imagine and make visions real. 

“BT, NI Water and NI Electricity have all successfully trialed new technology on the island in the last five years, technology that can be used in other rural or remote communities. Wind turbines have become common sights on the Irish mainland but transforming wind or tidal energy into a storable form, in this case Hydrogen Fuel, opens huge benefits for the community’s self-sufficiency and economy. A secure, ‘home grown’ resource would also become a transportable commodity that can again be traded off the island. It will move Rathlin towards becoming a net exporter of energy rather than importing all its fossil fuel.”

Rathlin’s 2020-2030 energy plan envisaged piloting hydrogen powered vehicles on Rathlin, and is exploring the idea of upgrading the fast ferry to a 200-250 pax H2 powered vehicle. Likewise on Valentia Island in Kerry innovation is everywhere as Colum O Connell, Chairman of the Valentia Energy Group relates saying: “Looking into the future there is huge potential for hydrogen to be used for reconversion to electricity as needed. Combine this with the ongoing developments of micro grid, you have a solution to have a robust continuous supply of electricity at a community level. This aligns with our strategic goal of energy independence. Being a relatively small island we are a good fit for innovation trials in these areas to demonstrate the viability of such solutions.”

The Valentia Island energy journey timeframe stretches back to January 2017 when the islanders registered with the SEAI Sustainable Energy Community Program. Vital progress was made very quickly so much so that by the autumn of 2019 the Valentia Island hydrogen feasibility study launch saw the islanders being lauded by the Chair of Hydrogen Ireland, Dr James Carton, at the launch who said: “Valentia can be of international significance representing the transition of energy from fossil fuels to hydrogen (water), a momentous turning point in our energy transition.”

The islands development has also this week been lauded by Mairead Mc Guinness, Vice President of the European Parliament who said: “The world is having to adjust to the restrictions forced on us by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time we have to address the climate crisis and plan for a European recovery that will deliver a modern, efficient and competitive economy.   It is vital that we generate a secure green energy future for all. Security not just in terms of access but also in resource utilisation. The EU is committed to achieving climate neutrality and a net-zero future – to do so we must ensure that the plans are all encompassing, remove energy vulnerability and that no one is left behind. Ensuring access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy is essential for all our communities. I congratulate the vision of Rathlin and Valentia islanders on their ‘Hylanders’ initiative as they seek to develop low carbon sustainable future through Hydrogenewables. These communities have identified green energy as the catalyst for sustainability and growth, a model that other communities and indeed Europe as a whole can replicate and utilise .”

 The islanders as with everything in life face daily challenges and the challenge of green energy is another journey for the inhabitants.  The lyrics in the song Rathlin by Michael and Shay Black, lyrics by Erica Pagels capture this island ruggedness and vision where the inhabitants always resort to their commercial, social and economic origin. , ‘The world is a cloud of confusion and sound, greed and false leaders and meanness confound, the heart feels a tide rise, and Rathlin stays true, drawing you back to the Rue’.

But is affordable energy from the likes of wind and water as innovative as what has gone before. Michael Cecil argues: “Since the late 1970’s, much of the Rathlin Development and Community Associations’ work was driven by a need to catch up and to secure basic services that were already taken for granted on the mainland. It involved finding the people we needed to persuade of our separate issues and then lobbying, often with a degree of hard confrontation and argument. It was a valuable school.

“In recent years , as many of those services were put in place, it became easier to develop partnerships, especially in Rathlin’s case, the Rathlin Policy and its Ministerial Forum, a unique way of connecting regional and local government with local community in Northern Ireland. This has allowed the community to move beyond lobbying from outside the room and to sit inside at the table as equals.”

Small islands in a small energy market but Rathlin and Valentia are becoming part of the bigger hydrogen question on the island of Ireland, there is no doubt about that in the summer of 2020. Diane Dodds the Northern Ireland Economy Minister said in July 2020: “Northern Ireland is well placed to lead the way in decarbonisation and developing clean energy. There is a substantial economic recovery opportunity in decarbonising energy as part of growing our green economy and delivering significant export opportunities for homemade lower and zero carbon solutions. There is a real potential for us to become a centre of excellence for the hydrogen economy with local manufacture of electrolysers, hydrogen fuel and hydrogen fueled vehicles.”

Michael Cecil explained how the future renewables developments have been carefully thought out saying: “The new models that are being explored on small islands and with island partnerships like ours between Rathlin and Valentia are showing that there are viable alternatives to fossil fuels that can develop from within local communities, stimulate local economies, and be owned and managed by new grassroots structures. The good practice benefits and cautious, careful working with models as ‘living labs’ on our micro level will have significance on other, macro levels. As economic and environmental factors increasingly drive larger, mainland economies to invest in alternatives, the experiences of these small island projects will grow in value. Other small islands in the UK and in other parts of the world are already showing success.”

This is backed up by Colum from his days working with the Valentia Island experience when he says: “When we started the conversation around hydrogen, the view was that it was still a solution in development mode. However, since then we have saw developments lead to rapid decline in the cost of production of hydrogen and global initiatives to accelerate the adoption of hydrogen. The European Green Deal clearly identifies the opportunities in hydrogen and this is reflected in the funds allocated to hydrogen implementation and development. In Ireland in a recent interview, our Minister for Climate Action, Eamon Ryan referred to the potential of hydrogen, “Green hydrogen is a particularly flexible fuel which can be used directly to decarbonise energy sectors such as heating and transport, as well as being used for reconversion to electricity as needed.” All this momentum and the commitment at a community level give rise to high levels of optimism.”

The solar energy developer Lightsource Renewable Energy held a launch event at government buildings in Belfast at Stormont as far back as 2013. Ideas have come and gone but renewables never remains far from the headlines. Michael understands this on Rathlin island saying: “To achieve the installation and operating of the much longed for community owned wind turbine on the island would be a huge benefit, economically and socially. If this were linked to on island hydrogen fuel production and its sustainable use across the island for heating, transport, and ferry travel the initiative would help us achieve our goals of becoming a carbon neutral island, and a net energy exporter. The impact on the local economy would be powerful. Instead of bleeding income as consumers of external energy supplies, islanders would benefit from local production and use on the island would be a ‘sticky ball’ around which would gather employment and training opportunities as well as opportunities for the development of other projects in the aspirations of the community.”

Colum from Valentia knows their worth in the bigger picture too saying : “Valentia and the rest of South Kerry does not have access to a natural gas pipeline. And so our heating systems (oil or coal or gas) are difficult to decarbonise. Hydrogen is a natural means to address these challenges. Valentia in its very nature, being an island with small population , lends itself perfect to research programs and being a hub for becoming a demonstrator of engineering, technical and energy skills.”

Innovation is in the DNA of every islander, they have always had to sort from within, rising and responding  to face the challenges head on faced and are always open to working with others for mutual benefit.  Michael Cecil is very open to open to new energy research programmes and even more new energy alternatives. The islanders have bought into the vision and everyone is excited at the potential new ideas. MIchael is open to further new solutions: “We welcome new opportunites to explore and be part of energy research. The island is proud of its environmental heritage and recognises its responsibility as guardians to protect the built and natural environment, enjoying it and finding wellbeing in it now as well as safeguarding it for the future. Many environmental scientists come to the island to study and research the unique flora and fauna of our terrestrial and marine environments. This is done by small groups on a private and ad hoc basis, with no designated or supportive infrastructure. The development of the East Lighthouse project will provide a home for some of this, a gathering point and venue for research. The location itself will lend itself to being a research facility for many disciplines and energy research programmes will be a perfect fit.”

Innovation always surrounded the Rathlin Lighthouse in order to achieve maximum effectiveness the lighthouse  was built into the cliff face between 1912 and 1917. A special pier and an inclined railway from the pier to the clifftop had to be built to facilitate the lighthouses construction. It is worth bearing in mind that Rathlin itself is only 16 miles from the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland.

The islands can become a low carbon hub and demonstrator of engineering, technical and energy skills according to Michael as he looks at the wider picture, pointing out: “We have seen this grow in the commitments of the Scottish islands such as Eigg, now over 90% energy self- sufficient with a community managed patchwork of renewable solutions and sustainable community use, although its transport, particularly ferry travel, still uses fossil fuels. Orkneys’ advances with developed practice in hydrogen production and use, including a growing hydrogen fueled solution, is a particularly inspiring example that we have connected with and are learning from.

“There are already many examples of islands developing renewable energy solutions, reducing their carbon footprint and becoming attractive centres for further research and learning. Our connection into the European Small Island Federation and Clean Energy for EU Islands initiative provide numerous good examples for our encouragement. ‘Island Innovation’ is preparing for its second global Virtual Island Summit, much of which will present and explore the innovative programmes and projects of the islands of varying sizes around the world that have made incredible advances in this field, for their own immediate benefit and now attracting the growing interest of others. The network of Smart Island Developing States has begun a Lighthouse initiative, a framework for action to support SIDS in their transformation from predominantly fossil based to renewables based resilient energy systems. These networks speak of islands working on renewable energy solutions as lighthouses for others on the way to decarbonisation.

“Islands such as Rathlin and Valentia , are recognising the opportunities, the need and the urgency of finding and developing more sustainable energy solutions. Our island energy supplies often depend on vulnerable, limited capacity undersea cable connections with mainland networks. Our fossil fuel imports are expensive and always subject to sea and weather conditions with the climate crisis increasing the frequency and fury of storms. Island communities have less room for the complacency often prevalent in the mainland. These are real incentives to get on with clean energy transition with immediate benefit to ourselves and the added value of knowing we may also play a part as lighthouses for decarbonisation elsewhere. We welcome the support, example and expertise of others and believe that timely investment in these small island models will reap big rewards way beyond these service stations on the maritime highways.”

By building partnerships and their own enthusiasm the islands can continue on their green journey. The Energy Co Operatives Ireland organisation in the last 10 years helped community groups such as the Valentia Island Energy Co-Operative. Now the likes of the Aran Island Energy Co-Operative are also now paying heed to the exciting opportunities post 2020. A new hydrogen Masters course starting in January in Dublin City University will enable students from all over Ireland including the wider Kerry area to work remotely and avail of the learnings that can be garnered from the Valentia Island hydrogen project. Time stands still for no one in the renewables field as innovative solutions for a clean energy transition make a brighter greener future possible.

Paul McCormack, GenComm Project Manager, who are working with Valentia and Rathlin on their Hylanders projects stated: “The Hylanders concept is to create a hydrogen ecosystem for the islands. Unlike other regional or sector specific such as the Hydrogen Valleys project, Hylanders is seeking to deploy a full hydrogen supply chain from the H2 production from electrolysis, to a range of H2 end uses across mobility, industry and heating-complete green energy flagship islands-communicating the Green Energy opportunity to Europe akin to the islands rich history in being communication modes for Europe many years ago.”