An ambitious project to turn the Isle of Wight into a flagship for renewable energy generation, energy storage and smart networks could change the image of the island from one of Victorian holiday resorts to cutting-edge technology, as the founder of the scheme explains to Stephen Harris
Founder and CEO, Ecoisland Partnership
1984 – 2006, CEO, United Kingdom Sailing Academy
2006 – Present, Director, 3Greenlights consultancy
2010 – Present, Founder and CEO, Ecoisland Partnership
On a sleepy island on the south coast of England, a revolution is brewing. The Isle of Wight may be best known for sailing regattas and Victorian holiday resorts, but a new movement has begun to turn it into a showcase for cutting edge technology, and the world is taking note.
The Ecoisland project aims to make the Isle self-sufficient in renewable energy by 2020, by harnessing community enthusiasm and capitalist market forces to build its own miniature smart electricity network. Last month, delegates from island communities as far as way as Fiji and Hawaii (who attended virtually to reduce their carbon footprint) met representatives of multinational corporations including IBM and Toshiba at an international conference to learn how the Isle of Wight is carrying out its ambitious plans and how to replicate them around the globe.
The most fittingly named David Green is the founder of Ecoisland and the man behind the goal of energy self-sufficiency for the Isle of Wight. Although he’s a former charity CEO who is fiercely committed to helping save the planet and reduce fuel poverty, he’s not your stereotypical environmentalist. ‘We’re not a bunch of cardigan-wearing tree huggers but a community who see the benefits of the new green economy and believe that keeping the green pound on the island makes perfect sense,’ he told the Ecoislands Global Summit in October.
His vision is one where a local company can, through investment and partnerships with big business, generate its own renewable electricity and reducing energy usage on the island, making enough money selling power to the rest of the UK to cut inhabitants’ energy bills. In some ways it’s a simplistic goal, one that avoids the complexities of addressing every issue of sustainability and carbon footprint related to 21st century Western life. But there’s reason for that.
‘If you follow a carbon route mercilessly you end up with all sorts of silly things going, trying to trade one thing against another,’ he told The Engineer. ‘And it’s not really about that; it’s just trying to leave a lighter footprint on the land.’ Complete sustainability can (and will, he says) come later. In the meantime, Green would like to see other islands and other British regions follow the Isle of Wight’s example and develop their own energy policies, rather than relying on a national strategy.
‘What you want to see is each one of these regions becoming self-sufficient in terms of their net resources. You can’t get to the point where nobody ever shares, that’s not what we’re talking about. It’s just trying to spread out the overall impact and try to get ourselves to the point where we’re not drawing on the planet’s resources as heavily as we are.’
The Isle of Wight is often called “England in miniature” thanks to its diverse countryside, and the Ecoisland plan is that of a similar microcosm of what the UK’s future energy landscape could look like: a series of different renewable generation and storage technologies managed by a smart grid that also reduces energy demand.
Several commercial solar PV arrays are already installed, wind turbines are in the pipeline and the ITM Power has just begun a Technology Strategy Board co-funded project to build a renewable electricity-powered hydrogen production and vehicle refuelling station, which will support up to 20 cars and vans from next year. Tidal and geothermal generation could follow within five years time while batteries will provide direct energy storage capacity to smooth out the intermittent nature of most renewables.
Ecoisland is also working with the likes of IBM to construct a smart grid that can help encourage consumers and businesses to use less energy, or just use it at off-peak times. Customers could even concede control of appliances such as air conditioning and refrigerators and agree to have them remotely turned off for short periods of time to cut electricity use when needed, with no obvious consequences to the user.
This combination of renewable generation and the ability to store power or cut back energy usage will enable the Ecoisland company to trade electricity with the UK’s national grid, acting as a virtual power station that can help smooth out the differences between supply and demand as they fluctuate throughout the day.
Ecoisland isn’t a typical business but rather a community interest company (CIC), a type of profit-making social enterprise. ‘It’s the same as a limited company except the assets are locked to the community,’ said Green. ‘We don’t pay dividends and we don’t have a massive group of beneficiaries other than the community.’
Through partnerships with the local paper, the organisation says it is recognised by almost 90 per cent of the island’s 140,000 inhabitants. ‘And we haven’t got a single letter of dissent – not to say there isn’t some dissent out there,’ said Green. ‘I think we’ve sided ourselves with people, saying “We’re in difficult economic times, we’ve got some difficult challenges coming in energy and we are very vulnerable because we’re an island and we need to get ourselves sorted out”.’
However, Ecoisland is there to make a return for its investors and help its members save money, he emphasised, and plans to do so within three years. ‘That’s the same way I ended up running the charity. The more successful you are in your semi-commercial activities the more sustainable it becomes, so you’re no longer reliant on handouts from government grants or anything else to keep it all going.’
When people join the scheme, which means signing up for energy supplied by SSE – Ecoisland’s partner utility firm – eventually they should be eligible to receive money off their bills based on how much energy the CIC trades on the wholesale market. But anyone can save money by turning their lights off when they leave a room or putting on an extra jumper instead of fiddling with the thermostat. And plenty of people don’t do it. How will Ecoisland ensure people not only cut their electricity usage but agree to have their fridge taken over by an energy company?
‘The answer is we make it cool, we make it fun. We use the things people are familiar with – technology, social media, games, prizes – and we try and incentivise,’ said Green. ‘If you ask me for my personal not professional view, I think it will be the single biggest game changer of all. I think you change behaviours when it means something to the person at the other end, when it actually starts to have an impact and a positive benefit on their lives. We’ve got to show people and we’ve got to give the right sort of messages too, but I think when it comes down to it if you can link up something on that level we will drive behaviours very rapidly that way.’
What’s perhaps most impressive about Ecoisland is the scale of its ambition. It wants to fill the roles of renewable generator, advanced network operator and public-facing energy services firm. Although it won’t be competing directly with the big retailers, it will be trying to replicate some of the schemes they are also attempting. How can Green hope to achieve everything?
‘This is R&D and by the very nature of R&D we won’t get it all right. Part of the problem with those companies is they’re very risk-averse, so they won’t actually take a chance on anything that might not be perfect. And we’re of the opposite mentality. We’ve very much the living laboratory. We can do that where maybe they can’t.’
And by taking this experimental approach, Green believes the benefits of Ecoisland can spread far beyond the Isle of Wight. ‘I already know of five or six other regions that are starting to copy us,’ he said. ‘And we want copies, we’ll do everything in a sort of open-source sense to facilitate and grow this because our game is to spread the model and not sit on it and coin it in.’ Sounds like good news for the rest of us.
How did your experience running the charitable United Kingdom Sailing Academy prepare you for this role?
It sounds a curious fit but being a boater you have to be self-sustaining; you learn the art of living within your means. And two, I learnt all the skill set of the PR, the communications, the stakeholder engagement, I took young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to 28 countries around the world so started to build up the picture of a global project and how to manage those range of interests, and obviously became very experienced in the fundraising and sponsorship. Plus, in 20 years here at a charity and one of the major employers on the island, I’ve built up a lot of trust. People know where I’m coming from and, knowing I’ve been with a charity for 20 years, they know my heart’s in the right place.
Where did the idea for Ecoisland come from?
I came out of the charity and started my own consultancy, and ultimately ended up doing some PR for a renewable energy company. It was at that point I realised that people really didn’t get it. Then I committed to doing my house. I’ve made my house one of the top 100 eco-showrooms in Britain. We were having about 50 visits a month at one stage to the house and it steered me into realising that a lot of people on the island didn’t know or understand these technologies and I just thought it was important to try and create a vehicle that communicated that more effectively. Plus the microcosm of making your own home sustainable and self-sufficient is a path towards looking to the bigger picture on the island and the planet as it is.
How have you been able to convince investors to give you the hundreds of millions of pounds you’ve raised?
It’s basically people who are looking to switch out of the old paradigm of fossil fuels and come into the new vision of renewable energy and want a stake in the new energy territory. It’s people who are looking to support the vision but on an economic basis; they don’t want to do it out of philanthropy, they want to do it out of a sound economic model and the model we’ve had devised with KPMG has actually given us the capabilities of convincing them that it can actually add up better than fossil fuels. And that’s something I don’t think a lot of people have seen: the sight of a real genuine renewable energy economy is a bit of a first.
Does your model include government subsidies such as feed-in tariffs?
It’s very unlikely that any organisation’s going to turn feed-in tariffs down but the model is not built on them, so that’s a very important point. The model will sustain itself without them. The purpose of taking advantage of what subsidies do exist is to speed the roll-out and the return. We’re not saying that subsidies are wrong: Europe-wide it’s proven that grants don’t do it and that subsidies do. We just hope that our model will, in the end, make us totally self-sufficient without dependence upon it, just in case they change their minds.
The solar feed-in tariff has already been cut. How did that affect you?
We lost three major schemes, one of which was £25m, all through tariff changes and all of those would have put significant funds back into the community pot. [The tariff change] was stupid in a way: they saved peanuts but the fear that they put in the marketplace was 90 percent off the order books in a month, and the fear that puts into investors you’ll be reaping for five years. It’s not even about what that policy is; it’s about the reliability of it because if you build a commercial model around it you can’t afford it if the goalposts get moved halfway along.