When two of Ireland's islands – Valentia off the south coast and Rathlin off the north coast – were confronted with a number of energy challenges due to their specific geographic and climatic conditions, they set out to address their unbalanced seasonal energy demand with a hydrogen-based solution.

Colum O'Connell, chairman of the Valentia Energy Group, says: “In the last census it was recorded that there are 653 houses on Valentia Island – 255 of which are permanent dwellings, with 302 being classified as holiday homes.

Colum O'Connell, chairman of the Valentia Energy Group

"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, foresees similar problems but says he is confident that hydrogen can produce a solution: “The tourist season does cause a large increase in ferry traffic; the recently completed island energy audit showed the ferries were Rathlin’s biggest producer of carbon emissions due to their use of diesel fuel – equating to 800,000 kg of CO2e, 400,000 kg of that being emitted between June and August.

'Instantly cut Rathlin's carbon footprint by 50%'

"Moving to hydrogen-powered ferries would instantly cut Rathlin's carbon footprint by 50%,” says Cecil.

As the islands are at the furthest extremities of the energy network, they are energy vulnerable. This vulnerability leads to much insecurity in population stability, transport, heating, tourism and more. 

“Our very location makes the infrastructure a huge challenge," says O'Connell. "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. This all points to an opportunity for local communities to be enablers of local production of their own energy needs.

Michael Cecil, Rathlin Development and Community Association chairman

"In the latest version of the Renewable Electricity Support Scheme, it was highlighted that the energy minister was supportive of individuals and communities generating their own power. Of course, it has to be green power. This is a positive message and lends itself to our strategy to become energy independent on Valentia,” says O'Connell.

Just Transition Fund 2020

Government is not sitting back, however, and has become more focused on the renewables energy agenda. The Just Transition Fund (JTF) is a key pillar of the government’s just transition plan for the midlands region.

A 2020 fund of €11 million will be available for projects focusing on retraining workers and generating sustainable employment in green enterprises within the region, while supporting communities to transition to a low-carbon economy.

The objective of the Just Transition Fund 2020 call is to fund innovative projects that contribute to the economic, social and environmental sustainability of the wider midlands region and which have employment and enterprise potential. It will support projects that take a whole-of-midlands strategic approach and complement other sources of public funding.

The 2020 call has three priorities:

1. Employment and Enterprise Supports: To support innovation and investment proposals to generate sustainable employment in green enterprise;

2. Training Supports: To retrain and reskill workers to assist local communities and businesses in the wider midlands to adjust to the low-carbon transition;

3. Community Transitioning Supports: To support proactive communications with affected communities and other stakeholders in the region, establish best practice sharing networks, and assist in developing local transition plans.

In May, it was also noted that three of the republic's 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.

O'Connell says: “It is broadly known that the most effective means to generate hydrogen is from wind. At a government level, they realise that 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 Kerry coast would be significant.”

Gap in network infrastructure

In Rathlin, Cecil mentions a gap in network infrastructure around telecommunications and broadband, more so on remote parts of the island.

The bigger picture, however, for both of these islands is that those wanting change regard decarbonisation as being vital. “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,” says Cecil.

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

'Establish branch of ‘Cool Planets’ on Valentia'

O'Connell says there needs to be more of an emphasis on explaining decarbonisation: “To address this, we have incorporated an education work stream 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 on the same page with regard to a new green hydrogen future, but those involved in their hydrogen projects 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. These include the work of GenComm outputs such as the Community Hydrogen Forum, the Decision Support Tool and Hydrogen Ireland.

Financial incentive needed

Momentum is gathering among the big companies in embracing the likes of Hydrogen Mobility Ireland but, for islands to start adopting the technology and to become more sustainable places, financial incentive is needed.

“No question about it," says O'Connell. "The adoption of hydrogen across the globe is at an unprecedented level. The recent EU green deal package has allocated in excess of €50 billion for development of hydrogen infrastructure and research.

"Yet, at a government level, we have not seen major policy introduced that incorporates hydrogen to the same extent that is being done across the globe.

"Incentives for hydrogen will raise awareness of the opportunities it can bring in a green energy transition. The people 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, Cecil says: “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, and early adopters need security of supply at a competitive rate.”

SDLP MP Claire Hanna said on a recent Ulster Business podcast that with the COVID-19 situation there is a consistent view among economists that we need to invest our way out of this. 

Positive impact on tourism

“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,” says Cecil.

The geographical location is also a big part of the energy debate for both islands. “We want to see more experiential tourism and a greater promotion of sustainable tourism," he says.

"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 staycations and outdoor activities are likely to come to the fore.

"Rathlin is keen to capitalise on the opportunities brought about as a result of ecotourism, and hydrogen and green energy can play a part in this.”