Renewables: friend or foe?

Islands in Greece are looking into renewables to become energy independent, but it is not all positive.
Photo Courtesy of @StephaniesPhotoStory

As worries about climate change increase, so do the critiques on the way energy is produced.

Renewables seem to be promoted as never before, forming part of the Paris climate agreement. However, shifts to green energy have been criticised for not always taking to consideration the benefits of the community, and sometimes causing more harm than good.

Time to boost small islands

In the Mediterranean and particularly in Greece the abundance of sunlight and wind create an ideal setting for a shift to green energy.

Greece has more than 100 inhabited islands, most of them are energy-dependent, meaning they’re provided electricity from bigger surrounding islands or the mainland via undersea cables. These, however, are vulnerable to damage, and thus provoke regular power outages. The big number of islands, the small population living on them and the sea itself makes costs high, maintenance expensive and project implementation particularly difficult. Green energy seems to be a promising alternative to the current situation.

One island leading the way

Tilos, a small island in the Aegean sea,  is leading the way. It is the first to address this energy shortage. Situated at the sea border with Turkey, its remoteness has been a central struggle. In February 2015, the island launched the multi-partner project, called TILOS — Technology Innovation for the Local Scale Optimum Integration of Battery Energy Storage.

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The project aimed to create a hybrid energy system that produces and stores energy whilst factoring in a minimal environmental impact. After years of research and preparation, the program finally started running in January this year. It expects to cover 70% of the island’s energy needs to start off, and eventually reaching 100%.

The long-term goal is to reach energy independence on the island and to provide closer islands with clean energy. Kos, that was so far the island’s energy provider, could one day supply green energy from it.  Tilos is said to be the first “green” island in the Mediterranean.

Renewable hype is spreading

Other remote islands facing the same challenges are inspired by the Tilos example and looking for a shift to renewable energy.

Kythnos for example, a less remote island in the Aegean sea, has shown interest in joining the Smart Island Initiative, to become energy independent. Not new to the subject, Kythnos is where Europe’s first wind power station was installed, in 1981.

A poll conducted by WWF Hellas shows that 73,7% of residents of 15 more Aegean islands want a shift towards renewable energy to be autonomous. It seems that a shift to renewables is not only a choice of cleaner energy but is a step closer to independence, a way for these small communities to stand on their own feet and to use their resources for their own needs. At least, that’s the case in some islands.

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The first outcomes of the TILOS project could show the real impact of green energy on small islands. There is hope for the project to set a positive example of sustainable living and higher quality of life in small islands or other remote areas around the world, seeking for a way to benefit from local resources, while respecting the local environment.

Renewable energy is great, but not a panacea

Where there is an opportunity for business though, there are often money-hungry investors. All around Greece, from Agrafa to Tinos, local movements are opposing the implementation of industrial wind farms that could put in danger the natural environment.

Such an example where lucrative aims are being prioritized over the environment is Samothraki, one of the last remaining almost undisturbed Mediterranean islands, known for its rich waters and natural beauty. The proposed by Volterra Energy installation of 39 wind turbines raises concerns about irreversible environmental harm.

This number of turbines in such a small island, home to rare and threatened species, could put in danger the sensitive microclimate and the natural landscape, as there will be the need to destroy part of the forest for the transportation and installation of the turbines. Unlike Tilos, where there was a small scale wind turbine installation tailored to the island’s needs, the proposal for Samothrace is the installation of wind turbines for industrial use, said P. Lekatsas, Representative of the Samothraki Residents’ Initiative Against the Wind Farm Construction.

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Concerns like those should not be disregarded, as renewables have disadvantages too. The same solutions and methods cannot be applied everywhere and the research conducted must be site-specific, like in the case of Tilos, where extensive research was done locally before implementation. The local environment requires detailed observation and analysis before finding suitable methods to implement renewable energy.

Local authorities must take responsibility to share the information and give a full picture of the green energy plan, the benefits and the risks. It is this very specific process that will connect with local residents to extract unique information regarding the project and to involve them in the decision making process. Ultimately, the decisions made are those that will shape their future.

Tania Rempatsiou

Tania is an educator from Greece, specialised in Sustainable Development at Stockholm University, Sweden. Currently located in Italy, she teaches in an international school in the mornings and gets involved in community projects in the evenings. She's passionate about the environment, agriculture, sustainable living and social inclusion. Travelling and art have an essential role in her life
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