15 July 2021
From the volcanic Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean to the picturesque Greek islands in the Mediterranean, all the way to the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea, there are approximately 2,200 inhabited islands in the EU. European islands are greatly diverse in terms of size, population, geography, and territory. 16 million Europeans live on EU islands, which corresponds to around 4% of the EU’s total population, but being one of Europe’s favourite holiday destinations, many more people enjoy the islands’ natural and cultural beauty.
Islands face particular challenges due to their geographic and climate conditions. They are less accessible than regions on the mainland – often the only way to reach them is by boat or plane. They are regularly exposed to weather phenomena, such as hurricanes, and the resulting floods. Rising sea levels, one of the most visible effects of climate change, represent a significant threat for many islands. These conditions translate into a higher cost of living, fewer employment opportunities, and an overall lower economic performance. Therefore, the situation of the EU population living on islands and on the mainland is hardly comparable.
Energy supply – a challenge and an opportunity
Due to their small size and isolated energy systems, islands face an important challenge with regard to energy supply. They are typically dependent on fossil fuel imports for electricity generation, transport, and heating. Fossil fuels are not only a major source of CO2 emissions, but they are also expensive: for example, the cost of electricity generation on islands can be up to 10 times higher than on the mainland! This represents an obvious financial burden for the islanders.
An abundance of locally available renewable energy sources, such as solar power, wind power, marine and geothermal energy, means that exploiting them can bring great socio-economic benefits to EU islands. Transitioning to a more sustainable energy supply, by using innovative technologies, is a crucial driver for sustainable and resilient economic growth and contributes to the development of local skills and jobs for island communities.
Needless to say, turning to renewables significantly diminishes the carbon footprint of any economy, even a small one. Islands are already taking on this decarbonisation challenge and are using their specific characteristics to become living laboratories for new power systems in Europe. They can thus become innovation leaders in the clean energy transition for Europe and beyond – leading the way to be ‘Fit for 55’ – that is, achieve the ‘net 55 %’ reduction targets by 2030. In the long-term perspective, this will also be an important pillar of EU carbon neutrality.
Energy innovation on Madeira – the way to go
Madeira is a great example of an island that is pioneering in energy transition. This rugged island, located in the Atlantic Ocean, is an autonomous region of Portugal. With almost 300,000 inhabitants, it is a popular tourist destination. Madeira can attract some 1.4 million tourists yearly.
Like many other islands, Madeira still depends on fossil fuels for much of its energy supply. Visitors arriving by plane will notice the swift progress in the transition to cleaner energy sources: the solar panels and wind turbines that welcome tourists during the plane’s descent towards the airport give a first impression of the ongoing innovative energy projects.
To set the priorities of its clean energy transition, Madeira developed a sustainable energy action plan in 2012, committing to reducing its energy intensity, improving the security of energy supply and bringing down energy dependence from abroad. The plan aimed to create wins on multiple fronts: switching to renewable energy sources reduces dependency on fossil fuel imports from the mainland while simultaneously creating economic benefits, as renewable energy sources are cheaper than petroleum-based fuels. They also lead to a reduction of the overall carbon footprint of the island.
The plan has not remained a dead letter. Over the past year, the island diversified its energy mix by introducing natural gas, expanding the number of wind parks on the island’s windy plateaus, increasing the extent of solar and installing hydropower. This development has substantially reduced the demand for petroleum-based fuels, thereby cutting the island’s carbon dioxide emissions. Transport on the island, accounting for about half of Madeira’s energy consumption, has also undergone an important change. Through an electric vehicle incentive programme, Madeirans can now charge their electric vehicles at almost 50 locations on the island, guaranteeing that a charging point is always nearby. Madeira is furthermore working on smart grid technologies, including energy storage, to accommodate an even higher penetration of renewable energy sources in the isolated power system in the future.
Many of these developments are led by the local electricity company Empresa de Electricidade da Madeira (EEM), whose planning directorate is one of the main drivers behind the transition. By combining strong technical know-how with solid political backing, European funds, and rich endogenous energy sources, they could transform the island into one of the world’s leading living labs for sustainable energy innovation. In 2022/2023 it is expected that Madeira will be able to produce 50% of its electricity from renewable energy sources, and this share will increase up to 70% as more storage stations come into operation in the future.
Empowering islands to act
Solutions, projects, and ambitions of islands, such as Madeira, need to be shared to inspire other islands to start their own energy transition. Here, the Clean energy for EU islands initiative comes in. Launched in 2017, as part of the Clean energy for all Europeans package, it provides a long-term framework to help islands generate their own, sustainable and low-cost energy. The European Parliament and the European Commission set up the Clean energy for EU islands secretariat in 2018, to help citizens, local authorities, businesses, and academic institutions work together to advance the clean energy transition on their island. Since then, the secretariat acts as a platform to exchange best practices for island stakeholders. It provides dedicated capacity building and advisory services to islands and liaises with European institutions on policy and regulatory issues for clean energy transition on islands.
By signing the Clean energy for EU islands pledge, islands can become an official part of the initiative and share their story with people and decision-makers across Europe. In 2020, Madeira signed this pledge, confirming its commitment to continue its energy transition efforts in the future.
After the successful conclusion of its pilot phase (2018-20), the secretariat continues the important work in promoting EU climate objectives. It operates on the basis of a central methodology: “Explore”, “Shape”, and “Act”, and brings solutions to all EU islands, tailored to the phase of energy transition they are in.
- Many islands are yet to start the reflection and stakeholder engagement. The secretariat can help them to explore and guide them to define their energy transition strategy.
- Others are ready to move beyond their existing transition agendas to project development. The secretariat can provide support, to shape the projects.
- Others still are ready to act and the secretariat can assist in financing their projects through matchmaking sessions.