Energy islands: Symbols of transformation and independence

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Like most islands, Malta has been nearly 100% dependent on imported fossil fuels and relies on numerous desalination plants to provide clean water to its inhabitants and tourists. [Giuseppe Milo/Flickr]

Malta epitomises the value of islands in leading the transition to cleaner sources of energy, and ultimately in symbolising the potential for energy independence, writes Stuart Reigeluth.

Stuart Reigeluth is the founder of Revolve Media, a communication agency which aims to accelerate the energy transition and foster cultures of sustainability.

South of Sicily, east of Tunisia, north of Libya, Malta seems far from Europe as the Mediterranean Member State par excellence, encapsulating all the dynamic hybridity of cultural exchange between the different sides of the sea. But it’s not so much its geographic location that make Malta fitting for representing the energy transition, rather that it is essentially a big limestone sitting on an aquifer, meaning that it’s water and energy sources are paramount to its survival.

Like most islands, Malta has been nearly 100% dependent on imported fossil fuels. And in addition, being located on a limestone, Malta relies on numerous desalination plants to provide clean water to its inhabitants and tourists. The problem with desalination is that it takes all the minerals out of the water (most people end up buying bottled water for drinking) and the process is very energy-intensive, which means more pollution and waste if renewables are not integrated properly.

The four EU member states that are actual islands helped propel the Political Declaration on Clean Energy for Islands that was signed by 14 Member States at an informal inter-ministerial meeting on 18-19 May. The declaration states that “EU islands can be the architects of their own energy transition”, implying an integration of renewables and energy efficient measures. Sardinia and Sicily have the highest level of renewables.

Energy islands are symbolic of the energy transformation and the potential for energy independence from imported fossil fuels. If Malta can move in that direction, then certainly Brussels can take greater steps towards financing the exploitation and deployment of indigenous sources of energy, such as the palette of renewable energies available in Europe, which would decrease our dependence on Russian gas or Saudi petrol, once and for all…

According to Kevin Sara, Chairman of NurEnergie, the EU imports over 50% of its energy, which was equivalent to some €500 billion in 2012 alone. Certainly, such amounts of money could be spent more productively and constructively for Europe. NurEnergie obviously thinks so and proposes to connect Europe and Africa with sub-sea electricity cables – in a first instance from Tunisia to Italy. The energy connector project has yet to be approved but others are underway too now.

Also speaking at the 17th EUFORES Inter-Parliamentary Meeting, André Merlin presented updates from the western corridor connections between Portugal-Morocco and Spain-France; the central corridor between Tunisia-Sicily (Sicily is already connected to the boot of Italy); and the eastern corridor between Israel-Cyprus; as well as the land corridor in the eastern Mediterranean from Turkey to Egypt. He was the architect of the MedGrid consortium that aspired to connect the Mediterranean with a continuous electricity grid – a dream yet to be achieved.

Of course, political roadblocks are everywhere you look around the Mediterranean. In part, this is why MEP Claude Turmes has launched an initiative for A Sustainable & Interconnected Mediterranean Region which is essentially a manifesto by 17 Members of the European Parliament in May 2017 to advance and accelerate the energy transition in Mediterranean countries.

That’s in the Mediterranean. Around the world, there are 2,600 inhabited islands comprising 15 million people, where energy poverty is a real challenge. Diesel generation still dominates island energy overall. Presented by Megan Richards, Director of Energy Policy, DG Energy, at the European Commission, there are positive results via the Horizon 2020 SMart IsLands Energy systems (SMILE) project on the European islands of Madeira (Portugal), Orkney (UK) and Samso (Denmark) where renewables are taking hold.

While EU funding is an excellent instrument for getting projects off the ground, ultimately we need to condition grants and subsidies on the implementation of self-sufficient business models that bring returns on investment, economic stability and environmental sustainability to islands, as great symbols of what we can all do by participating in the energy transformation. Germany showed zero subsidies is possible for offshore wind; Portugal relied on 100% renewables for days… It’s happening.

As John Donne famously wrote: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”… Ironically, as a Brit, he was referring to Europe.

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