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A yacht races through waves around the Isle of Wight, England.

A yacht steers near the Isle of Wight during an annual race around the island. The self-sufficiency efforts of those who live at sea inspired long-time island dweller David Green in his project to create a renewable energy showcase off the south coast of England.

Photograph by Richard Hughes, Kos Picture Source/Getty Images

Thomas K. Grose in London

For National Geographic News

Published October 10, 2012

Jutting into the English Channel a mere 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) off Britain's south coast, the Isle of Wight is probably best known for its annual pop music festival. But if the Ecoisland Partnership is a success, people may one day be singing its praises as a renewable energy paradise.

Ecoisland is a year-old effort to turn the diamond-shaped island into a test bed for green technologies, with an aim of making the island a self-sufficient oasis of renewable energy by 2020. The project already has attracted 70 corporate partners, including A-listers such as Toyota, IBM, and Toshiba, eager to put some of their innovations to a real-world test. "Soon after we launched [last November], many companies were asking, 'Can we come and play in your playground?' " said David Green, Ecoisland founder and chief executive officer. "It will be a living laboratory."

Ecoisland is reaching out internationally as well. On October 16 and 17, it will play host to the Ecoislands Global Summit; 500 delegates, including representatives from some 20 islands and regional communities, are expected to converge on the isle. The summit aims to produce an accord among islands that commit to becoming renewable energy self-sufficient by 2020. The Isle of Wight project expects to have a helping hand, with Ecoisland Partnership soon to announce details of a planned deal to give it hundreds of millions of dollars in financing.

Inspiration at Sea

The aptly named Green, 51, spent 20 years as chief of the United Kingdom Sailing Academy, a charity that seeks to foster personal development—among disabled as well as able-bodied students—through yachting, sailing, and watersports. Green, who has lived on the Isle of Wight since 1984, was inspired in his idea for Ecoisland through his contact with folks who live on boats and have to be self-sustaining for weeks or months at a time. The Ecoisland project is also encouraging sustainable food and water initiatives, but its main thrust is to generate 60.5 megawatts (MW) of electricity using solar, tidal, waste, geothermal, and wind energies.

The notion of islands that use renewable energy to achieve self-suffiency has been around for more than a decade. In the late 1990s, Samsø, a Danish island in the North Sea that's home to 4,300 people, invested heavily in solar and wind technologies. It's now not only self-sufficient, but exports power to the mainland, to the tune of £4.5 million ($7.3 million) of revenue a year. Currently, renewable self-sufficiency projects are under way or under consideration on a number of islands worldwide, including the South Pacific island atolls of Tokelau, the Caribbean island of Bonaire, and both the Orkney Islands and Eigg, off the coast of Scotland. (Related: "Ocean Energy Teams Compete for $16 Million Scotland Prize") It's a smart move for islands, especially those far from any mainland; They frequently have to rely on shipments of oil for electricity as well as transport energy, a trade that's as costly as it is polluting. (Related Pictures: "Oil-Reliant Islands Seek Green Energy Restart")

The IoW is close enough to the Britain mainland that it can draw the 40 megawatts (MW) of power it needs for its 142,500 residents from the national grid (which gets about 10 percent of its electricity from renewable sources). At present, there is a 140 MW natural gas-fired backup plant on the island that kicks in to cover peak loads both on the island and the British mainland, which occurs only five or six days a year. But the old plant is being decommissioned.

Ideally, Green hopes to generate an excess of power from renewables and sell it back to the mainland.

The largest share of the clean power now being planned, 25 MW, would come from photovoltaic solar panels, mostly installed on homes and businesses. Also in the works is a project with the University of Southampton to harvest up to 20 MW of power from the strong tides off the island in a field test of five or six tidal power devices. Tidal energy is still in its infancy, but the roiling waters around the United Kingdom are seen as especially promising territory for testing.

Another 5 MW is expected to come from geothermal. (Related: "Can Geothermal Energy Pick Up Real Steam?") There is a subterranean aquifer below the isle that has the potential to power a steam turbine. And another 10 MW could come from a new anaerobic digestion plant for biowaste that could also generate energy using pyrolysis, gasification, or incineration.

Currently the island recycles 50 percent of its waste, but the goal is to shrink the amount of trash going to landfills to a mere 1 percent. The new biowaste plant would replace a 2.3 MW gasification plant at the island's main landfill that uses trash as fuel. It was bolted onto an existing incineration plant by the Norwegian energy company Energos, and opened in 2008. But twice in 2010 it was closed for exceeding its limits for dioxin emissions, and last year the island's council voted unanimously to close the "unreliable" plant in 2015, when its license expires.

Wind Energy Qualms

Wind energy won't feature much in the Ecoisland landscape, either: Last July the council rejected a plan to erect a five-turbine wind farm that would have generated 12.5 MW of power. "People are uncomfortable with the size of them [wind turbines]," Green said. But he hopes that 0.525 MW of power can come from the deployment of small turbines—each measuring just 6 feet (1.8 meters) in diameter—made by WindTronics of Muskegon, Michigan. (Related: "Helix Wind Collapse Fails To Crush Hope for Vertical Turbines")

Small, vertical-axis turbines designed by Vestas, the large Danish turbine manufacturer that operates an R&D center on the island, might also be used. (Vestas used to make turbine blades on the IoW, but closed the plant in 2009, putting nearly 600 people out of work and sparking a four-month occupation of the plant by protesting workers.)

Of course, many renewable energy sources—particularly solar and wind—are unpredictably intermittent in nature, so also in the works is a so-called smart grid that can better accommodate clean energy sources. A Silicon Valley smart-grid tech company, Silver Spring Networks (investors include Google), also is a partner in Ecoisland. Construction of the island's smart grid will begin with the rollout of smart meters; an announcement of the timing is expected soon. Classic electric grids are passive, one-way systems that cannot easily handle electricity generated by fluctuating renewable sources. A smart grid essentially overlays the Internet atop the network, enabling it with information technologies to better manage distribution by controlling load to match generation, and to ultimately flatten demand peaks. It's also a two-way communications system that allows the grid to obtain and react to information from smart meters and grid-friendly appliances.

There are 65,000 houses on the island, which is 23 miles (37 kilometers) long and 13 miles (22 kilometers) wide. Ecoisland expects to have 35,000 of the houses wired to the smart grid within three years, and to have 90 percent of them onboard by 2020. Part of the incentive for customers will be lower bills; the project expects to cut energy costs in half. "But we also want it to be user-friendly and fun," Green said. For instance, consumers will be able to put their homes "to sleep" while they're out, and reawaken them when they're en route home. They'll also be able to program lights to go off and on at random intervals as a security measure.

Because of the intermittent nature of renewable energy, smart-grid systems also need huge capacity for energy storage. Renewables can generate much more energy than what's needed at most times, so storage ensures that excess energy is not wasted, but is instead saved and put to use in fallow periods. Ecoisland's grid will test some new battery technologies being developed by Toshiba. There's a hydrogen storage project planned, as well. Hydrogen can be formed using electrolysis, a process that uses electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen can be safely stored in underground caverns and used later to generate electricity. So ITM Power plans to build a £4.66 million ($7.55 million) electrolysis plant to create hydrogen from water using excess power from renewables.

Beyond being a backup source for the island's power system, the hydrogen will also be available for use by hydrogen fuel cell cars. Carmakers including Toyota and Hyundai plan to make electric vehicles, hybrids, and hydrogen cars available to the project. A program is being developed to lend the cars to residents for two to three days at a time. And Ecoisland plans to have 150 charging stations in place around the island within three years.

Raising the Green

Green began developing Ecoisland as a Community Interest Company (CIC) in 2007. A CIC is a relatively new legal designation in the United Kingdom for nonprofit, social enterprise companies that receive neither government funding nor charitable donations.

So far, the IoW's Ecoisland's corporate partners have kicked in about £2 million ($3.24 million) worth of pro bono consulting, and research and development work—what Green calls "sweat equity"—as well as some cash. "And no one has gotten a single penny back yet," he said.

Why all the interest? It's not altruism. First of all, there's the attraction of having a chance to test new technologies in a manageable, real-world environment. Moreover, it's good PR. "They've gotten an incredible amount of exposure," Green says. "They now look very good in the global community's eyes."

Sharon George, director of the master's program in environmental sustainability and green technology at England's Keele University, says "there is a need for real-world trials" like Ecoisland. "Big projects like this actually show the public what's possible." And they also help companies discover if some technologies are too hard a sell to consumers. "Technologies do not always fail because they were bad," George said. "They have to be easy to use and convenient."

Green says community support has been building over the past five years. Gavin Foster, spokesman for the IoW council, agrees, adding that green technology and conservation are supported widely there. When the island's recycling program recently became mandatory instead of voluntary, it proved very popular. When it comes to public support, "they [Ecoisland] are pushing up against an open door," Foster says.

Green estimates that the capital costs of erecting the Ecoisland infrastructure will be about £300 million ($486 million). Earlier this year, the company put out a prospectus for potential investors, and a dozen or so indicated a serious interest in the project. "But they wanted to own the results," Green said. "That would have left us selling the farm to big investors." Instead, Green is close to securing a mortgage-like investment that would allow Ecoisland to own the infrastructure once it's paid back.

The fund could balloon beyond the $486 million needed in the IoW to help finance low-carbon projects on other islands. Indeed, the hope is that the 20 islands and regions attending the global summit will sign an Ecoislands Accord, pledging to become renewable energy self-sufficient by 2020, and fully sustainable by 2030. A bit of investment "green" is always a good incentive for communities to go green.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

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