The tiny Greek island of Tilos is known for thinking green.
Much of the seahorse-shaped island lying between Kos and Rhodes is a protected environmental reserve that draws nature-loving visitors from across Europe. A few years ago, it announced plans to become the first Greek island to rely entirely on renewable sources for its energy needs. That has put it at the forefront of a new European Union initiative that sees Tilos as an example for other islands to emulate.
Stretching from the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean to Åland in the Baltic Sea, there are some 2,400 inhabited islands in the EU, which are collectively home to some 15 million people. Despite having access to renewable sources of energy, such as wind, solar, and wave, many of them depend on pricey and polluting fossil fuel imports for their energy supply.
In May 2017, the European Commission and 14 EU Member States, including Greece, gathered in Malta to launch the EU’s Clean Energy for Islands initiative. The idea: islands – thanks to their unique geography – have the potential to be frontrunners in the clean energy transition by adopting new technologies and implementing innovative solutions.
Tilos has become the prototype. With an EU grant to fund 80% of the €13.7 million project, Tilos became the first island in the Mediterranean to be autonomously powered by green energy. The key feature of the project has been an innovative battery system to store some of the surplus power generated by the island’s new wind turbine and solar power station.
Altogether, 13 partners from 7 European countries, from WWF Greece to the University of East Anglia to Eunice, a pioneer in renewable energy projects in Greece, joined forces to roll out the project, likewise dubbed TILOS, short for: Technology Innovation for the Local Scale Optimum Integration of Battery Energy Storage. Even before it was up and running the TILOS project had already won two awards for its innovative approach.
Tilos represented a perfect starting point for the initiative. Until now, the island covered its electricity needs through an undersea cable linking it to a diesel-fired power plant on the Dodecanese island of Kos about 69 km away. But frequent problems with the connection resulted in power cuts for the island of some 400 permanent residents – something that became especially acute when thousands of tourists flooded the island in summer.
“In the winter, the island now covers 100% of its energy needs. In the summer, we cover 75% of our own energy needs,” says Mayor Maria Kamma-Aliferi. The financial benefits of the scheme are difficult to boil down to one number but are far-reaching, she points out.
“We produce surplus energy which means we can also supply the nearby island of Kos with power. Additionally, we no longer have the big voltage fluctuations that we used to have on the island. These fluctuations had caused a lot of damage to electrical equipment at stores, damaging fridges, and in households, damaging washing machines,” she adds.
As it is, many of Greece’s roughly 150 inhabited islands are likewise dependent on expensive fossil fuels – not just small islands like Tilos, but big ones like Crete, too. Again, the reason lies in their geography. Isolated from the mainland’s power grid, the islands are forced to rely on seaborne shipments of oil to keep the lights on.
So, one of the Greek government’s initiatives is to develop new island interconnections to end their energy isolation from one another and from the mainland. The first phase, recently completed, was the interconnection of the Cyclades islands. By 2030, the goal is for the majority of Aegean islands to be interconnected, starting with the interconnection of Crete.
Linking up the islands will allow Greece to better plan its fuel needs, cut its greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce the common charges levied on all electricity consumers nationwide that subsidise the more expensive fuel imports for the islands. Once complete, the interconnection programme will result in annual savings of €400-450 million in those common charges, according to Greece’s new national energy strategy.
For the islands that are too remote to be linked with neighbouring or mainland power grids, Greece is planning to install new renewable energy units combined with smart storage technologies. And Tilos is once more leading the way.