Hydrogen car filling up

The Isle of Wight to set up EcoIsland

The Isle of Wight is pioneering the development of the UK's first truly sustainable region. The ambitious project promises islanders a 'utopia' of lower living costs, better quality of life, and a lighter carbon footprint. 

The Isle of Wight is a small island with a big idea. While major cities around the world contemplate the introduction of sustainable transport schemes, green energy projects, zero-waste initiatives or smart grids, the Isle of Wight is doing it all – and more – in one vast project known as 'EcoIsland'.

The idea behind EcoIsland is simple: to create the UK's first sustainable region – one that is self-sufficient in energy by 2020, as well as water and food, and one that can serve as a beacon for others around the world to follow. Yet the scale, complexity and ambition of the project would challenge most major corporate organisations.

The 'EcoIslanders' envision construction of around 120MW of renewable energy capacity, a smart energy grid, hydrogen storage, a clean transport network and energy storage systems, plus the development of an eco-centre and eco-business parks in addition to initiatives to reduce food miles and water consumption.

Not only do these ideas create technical and logistical challenges, the overall cost of EcoIsland will reach £200m-£300m, says David Green, chief executive of the EcoIsland Partnership. In spite of these challenges, and the economic climate, he is bullish about the success of the project, mainly because it is being driven by the people it will most benefit: the local community.

"This is a community vision being taken forward," says Green. "It was easy to get the population on board and involved, and a lot of the successes will come from individuals and communities. We owe it to them to succeed." Employment, training and education are important facets of the project.

The project's community focus and grass-roots philosophy are what sets EcoIsland apart from other 'ecocity' initiatives and is perhaps what has attracted the support of local and national government and businesses. Its alignment with Prime Minister David Cameron's 'Big Society', and the passage of the recent localism bill, will also help the initiative on its journey.

The EcoIsland vision

The ultimate EcoIsland vision is for all of the island's energy to be sourced from wind, solar, geothermal and tidal power, supplemented by energy from waste. Energy from these sources will not only power homes and businesses but will be used to generate hydrogen for use in fuel-cell vehicles in a clean transport network. Batteries and other energy storage devices will help to manage the intermittent supplies of renewable energy. Everything will be connected to a smart energy grid, which will manage energy resources and match supply with demand while maximising the overall efficiency of the system.

Although this 'utopian dream' seems a long way off, EcoIsland has already made progress and is "right on track" to make it a reality, says Green. It has already delivered a £25m project to install solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on 3,500 social houses in Chale and over 500 air-source heat pumps, has launched a 'Greenback' loyalty card that will reward locals for buying from firms that support EcoIsland, has joined a Green Towns scheme, and has gained support from around 70 local, national and international firms.

This year promises to be even busier as EcoIsland and its key partners - which include IBM, Toshiba, SSE, ITM Power, Cable & Wireless and Southern Water – progress towards implementing projects that will form the basis of the island's sustainable future. There are currently 32 projects at various stages of development, including tidal power installations at Hurst Narrows and St Catherine's Point.

"The tidal project is one of the most highly evolved," says Green. "We have 15 companies interested in demonstrating their technology as part of the first phase of this project and feasibility studies have been completed."

The EcoIsland Community Interest Company (CIC) – the financial engine behind EcoIsland – has put forward £1.65m for the tidal scheme, which will cost an estimated £30m. It has already negotiated rights with the Crown Estate and will create ten 'pods' that tidal manufacturers will be able to rent.

Major progress is also being made on the solar energy front in spite of government cuts to the feed-in tariff (FIT). EcoIsland is working with social housing companies on the island to install PV panels on roofs and is hopeful that commercial PV installations will proceed. The eco-business park, which will house a proposed central green data bank for use by EcoIsland as well as other companies, will be equipped with rooftop solar PV as well as battery storage technology from Toshiba.

"The central green data bank will progress rapidly over the next two months and will provide zero-carbon data hosting for companies seeking sustainable solutions for their data needs," says Green. "It will be as green as you can get in terms of data hosting."

A wind-powered future

Wind power will also form a key part of energy resources on the island and EcoIsland is examining the potential of a two-metre-diameter wind turbine from WindTronics that can be either roof-mounted or configured into scalable wind farm 'pods'.

"These turbines have several advantages: they are lightweight and three times more efficient than larger wind turbines. They turn at high speed in winds of up to 40mph and have a fast gust response," says Green.

The first WindTronics turbine is to be installed at the Isle of Wight College in the near future and, according to Green, Southern Water, one of the largest energy users on the island, has expressed an interest in this technology.

Southern Water could turn out to be a supplier as well as a consumer of energy, as the initiative is looking at the possibility of using methane gas from the company's water processing plant to supplement a proposed geothermal power plant.

"Tests have shown that the island's geothermal resources could heat water sufficiently for a district heating system but to drive a steam turbine it would need to be higher," says Green. "Toshiba is the largest supplier of geothermal power plants in the world and a binary system that uses methane would solve this problem."

One of the most important elements of the EcoIsland initiative is a 'hydrogen society' demonstration project, which will see EcoIsland partner ITM Power install a commercial hydrogen refuelling station based on its own electrolysis technology. The station will be powered by the island's renewable energy resources and be capable of refuelling 20 vans per day and storing up to two and a half days' energy needs.

"This will be the first of our 100kg/day units and in the first phase we will also supply the hydrogen internal combustion engine-powered vehicles," explains Dr Graham Cooley, CEO of ITM Power. The second phase, which is likely to start in 2014 or 2015, will involve the roll-out of fuel cell vehicles supplied by car manufacturers. Both Cooley and Green see hydrogen as playing a key role in solving the world's energy challenges and believe that EcoIsland is an opportunity to showcase this.

"The electrolyser is a big tool because it can absorb excess energy produced by renewables to make hydrogen, which can be stored and used to power vehicles," says Cooley. "Renewables are a no-brainer when oil prices are above $100 a barrel, and hydrogen storage adds value to renewables. It is cheap to produce' OEMs are committing billions [in investment] to rolling out fuel-cell cars."

Ultimately, hydrogen could be produced on the island on a wider scale, not just to power vehicles but also for use in the home. "I might have the first hydrogen home," says Green, explaining that houses could be equipped with PV-powered electrolysers and the hydrogen produced stored in small tanks and used to power and heat the homes and fuel homeowners' vehicles. On a larger scale, hydrogen could also be mixed with natural gas in the gas network.

Smart communities

Another key project moving forward this year will be the installation of smart electricity meters by SSE in some of the island's homes, marking the first steps towards the creation of the smart grid that will form the backbone and brains of EcoIsland. The meters will provide data on energy use in homes, while sensors elsewhere in the network will provide data on energy production and storage. All of this data will be stored and analysed in a data 'cloud' and used to balance supply and demand as well as maximise the efficiency of both energy production and use.

IBM will provide the IT infrastructure for the smart grid while a partnership between Cable & Wireless and Silver Spring Networks will be responsible for providing network connectivity. Toshiba will provide other elements of the smart grid.

The smart grid and data cloud are crucial to the success of EcoIsland because they will be able to encourage islanders to change their behaviour in respect of energy use.

"The smart energy cloud is a 'broker' of the incoming data that will ensure energy is distributed to where it is needed but it will also help people to behave in a grid-friendly way by telling them when the best time is to charge electric vehicles or put on a wash," explains Andy Stanford-Clark, Smarter Energy CTO of IBM Global Business Services.

This could be achieved by sending out SMS messages, for example, or equipping homes with 'ambient orbs' that glow a different colour depending on energy usage. "Such technology enables us to fill in the troughs and peaks of energy demand and it is also possible that SSE could introduce tariffs that reward people for grid-friendly behaviour," adds Stanford-Clark.

Ultimately it is possible that the smart grid could control appliances in homes in order to maximise efficiency and provide a source of 'negawatts' to the grid, something that could generate revenue for EcoIsland. "A good place to start would be immersion heaters as people don't really care when these come on as long at they have a source of hot water," says Stanford-Clark, who acknowledges that it could be hard for people to relinquish control of other parts of the home.

According to Stanford-Clark, data from the Chale PV project, where residents were able to at least halve their electricity bills, shows that changes in behaviour towards energy use took place. EcoIsland is aiming to halve electricity bills for the rest of the islanders, too.

The Chale project also showed the value of the data produced in building up a quantitative picture of energy use. In the wider EcoIsland project, it will be presented in an EcoIsland 'dashboard' that stakeholders will be able to access via the Web.

"We are unique because we are so measurable and defined," notes Green. "The dashboard will enable us to literally monitor everything that is happening on the island, and it will show our progress as well as trends."

Community ties

Making progress on the key elements of the EcoIsland initiative will enable the partners to silence any who doubt the viability of the project, but Green admits that it will be tough going in the current economic climate.

"The current timetable shows that we could reach energy self-sufficiency by 2017, but how much progress we actually make depends on the economic landscape and the government's attitude to renewables," says Green, who believes that recent changes to renewable energy support initiatives could "undermine investment levels".

"We just want a stable landscape from the government," explains Green, who is working with URS's Scott Wilson on the launch of an EcoIsland equity fund that will finance much of the planned investment.

Technological and economic challenges aside, however, Green and his partners hold strong their belief that their socio-economic model of a big society working hand in hand with business is a recipe for success that will make EcoIsland a "beacon of sustainability".

"It shows how with the right level of determination and a clear vision a big society can become a reality and on a practical level reduce the cost of living for residents, and at the same time improve their quality of living," says Green.

Speaking at the launch of the EcoIsland initiative in November last year, Patrick Razavet, director of the utility and smart energy sectors for Cable & Wireless Worldwide, said: "EcoIsland is stand-out in its intent, and will be a stand-out example of how a sustainable, low-carbon community can be nurtured, created, and made real.

"It's that very ambition, the passion we see from the people involved across the community and the partner ecosystem, and the scale, speed and scope of what the EcoIsland team have already achieved that first sparked our imagination. The thing that's most compelling is the excitement, speed, and hunger for innovation, surrounding this project.

"This is a journey that starts with the community and that's what's special." *

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