Many small islands around the world are perfectly placed to develop clean energy systems. Often blessed with plentiful natural resources of wind or sun or both, these islands have the potential to become self-sufficient if the right infrastructure is put in place. Of the 15 nations that fully ratified the Paris climate agreement in April 2016, 13 were tropical island states.

Importing oil can cost small island developing states (SIDS) almost 20 per cent of their GDPs. Reducing this cost would allow them to redirect investment to other important areas of their economies, and to strengthen their independent standing. The Abu Dhabi-based International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) anticipates a decrease in solar costs of up to 65 per cent by 2025, making it easier to make the transition to clean energy.

Inspirational examples of energy transformation can be found on islands across the world. The Danish island of Samsø has been energy positive for ten years. It has a population of just 4,000 and produces more energy from wind and biomass than it consumes. The success of the transformation from being an importer of hydrocarbon-based electricity to using renewable energy is largely down to the efforts of a native islander, Søren Hermansen. In 1998, the island won a competition sponsored by the Danish Ministry of Environment and Energy. It was looking for a community that could demonstrate that the country’s newly announced Kyoto target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by over 20 per cent was an achievable goal. The prize included enough funding to provide a salary for one person to bring the island’s 10-year renewables master plan to fruition. With determination and passion, Hermansen rallied the community to turn the island into a green powerhouse. The collective desire and commitment to make the change is evident in the fact that the wind turbines, for example, are owned by a combination of private citizens, investor groups, the municipal government and local co-operatives. The island’s vision is to be fossil fuel-free by 2030. Converting its ferry to a combination of island-generated biofuel and wind-charged batteries is part of this strategy. Petrol-powered vehicles will also be phased out entirely and replaced with electric or biofuel alternatives.

Across the North Sea, the Orkney Islands are setting a precedent for the rest of the UK to become carbon-free. They used to be completely dependent on importing power generated by burning coal and gas from the Scottish mainland. Today the islands are full of community-owned wind turbines generating electricity locally, some of which is used to charge electric vehicles at charging stations located across the islands.

In a similar vein to Samsø island, transforming public transport is high on the agenda. Orkney is planning to use hydrogen as fuel for its new generation of ferries that will replace the existing nine diesel-guzzling vessels. This will reduce costs massively, and the first ferry – which will also be ‘the world’s first hydrogen-fuelled seagoing car and passenger ferry’ – is due to launch in 2021.   

Across the Atlantic Ocean, a pair of entrepreneurs in Barbados are making the island one of the top users of electric vehicles in the world. Jo Edghill and her husband Simon Richards are the co-founders of Megapower, an electric vehicle company whose customers include the government, utility companies and the private sector. As an island with at least 220 days of sunshine, the entrepreneurs spotted a gap in the market for electric vehicles and it now has 350 vehicles on the road, supporting emissions reduction efforts in the process. The pair are continuing to innovate, using a grant from the Caribbean Export Development Agency to re-use electric vehicle (EV) batteries as storage for solar photovoltaic (PV) systems.

Island-produced energy could begin to serve mass markets in the future too. Dutch energy company TenneT’s man-made island surrounded by wind farms in the North Sea could help bring large-scale renewable energy to Northern Europe by 2050. The company claims that its North Sea Wind Power Hub could eventually supply 70 to 100 million Europeans with renewable energy.

Other islands looking to make the transition to renewable energy can take inspiration from Samsø and Orkney. They are proof that ensuring access to affordable, reliable, and sustainable clean energy, as per the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, can be achieved.

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