Rathlin & Valentia Islands – Poles Apart but linked to develop a new green hydrogen energy strategy

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TWO islands at the opposite ends of the island of Ireland are making ‘energetic strides’ in the face of the COVID19 crisis to develop a new green hydrogen energy strategy for a new decade.

Rathlin Island off the coast of County Antrim and Valentia Island off the coast of County Kerry are both committed to seeing a green hydrogen future that even includes new ‘green ferries’ operating to both islands.

Both locations are on a ‘green’ journey, Rathlin have had their energy audit completed, Valentia have their energy master plan, both have a common denominator, namely hydrogen as being the key to a better future. It has been said if you focus on sustainability, business can gain and there are environmental and financial benefits, its all interlinked. And in the troubled times of COVID 19 this is more needed in these communities than ever before.
Michael Cecil, Rathlin Development & Community Association Chairman reckons the island is braced for the COVID challenge, saying: “All small and medium islands suffer from energy poverty as traditionally most have no means of producing energy or fuel, this leads to a reliance on transporting everything using very inefficient methods. During periods of bad weather, ferry downtime or even the current COVID-19 lockdown transportation becomes even more difficult – all leading to insecurity of supply.
“COVID-19 has shown the public quite clearly how we are damaging our planet – since lockdown and with the reduction in transport and industry there has been a marked improvement in air quality, there is anecdotal evidence that nature has bounced back somewhat. We need to ensure we don’t revert back to how things were pre-COVID. That will involve new thinking around travel and energy.”
Likewise Colum O Connell, Chairman of the Valentia Energy Group knows that fresh new thinking is needed now too , saying: “Valentia, like the rest of Kerry has a huge dependency on the tourism sector. A recent study by PWC showed that Kerry is the county that has had the biggest impact on tourism due to the COVID crisis. This is one of the reasons we are looking to develop a hydrogen based economy so that we can create employment opportunities in Valentia that enable us to diversify away from tourism type employment.”

Both islands are in tune with each other in what they want next. There has been a desire to move Rathlin Island towards carbon neutrality and the ‘Rathlin As A Carbon Neutral Island’ document produced in September 2019 was a step in gathering thoughts and momentum. That same month the DFI facilitated a meeting on Rathlin between representatives from Rathlin Development and Community Association, , Belfast Metropolitan College, Invest NI, NUIG, and Energia. This meeting focused around hydrogen as a fuel of the future. While consent has been granted for a community turbine the goal is to make a clean energy transition to zero carbon through the use of Green H2.
In the coming years the community has aspirations to explore options around retrofitting the ‘Rathlin Express’ passenger ferry with hydrogen fuel cells, hydrogen storage tanks and electric drives. There is a need to secure a hydrogen supplier to meet the potential demand from the ferry. A pilot of hydrogen powered vehicles on Rathlin and a new identity for the East Lighthouse on the island are all envisaged. A citizen engagement event in May 2019 and a East Lighthouse Insight Report in August 2019 demonstrated that there is support for research and development on the site into what renewable energy offers. Michael and the RDCA are very open to the envisaged ‘green’ future with Michael saying: “Our roadmap outlines our ambitions around H2 and this includes a plant producing green H2 in the short to medium term, that is very much part of the plan. Yes, our desire is to develop green ferries coupled with an island green transport all linked back to wind energy and an associated H2 plant can become a tourist and education attraction in its own right.
“The brief for the lighthouse development is quite clear in that the entire venture must aim for carbon neutrality in its build and operation. We hope that pilot projects and medium scale research can take place onsite to be rolled out to the wider community.”
Decarbonisation is on the agenda in Valentia too. In January 2020 the Valentia Energy Co-Operative was formally registered. A reduced carbon footprint ties into a bigger story about climate change. This is an issue that is being discussed on Valentia? There are wider questions around how the co-operative make a feasibility study and the GenComm projects Decision Support Tool (DST) both work to allow these plans to come to fruition.

Colum O Connell explains the direction the group proposes: “The people of Valentia recognise the global challenge around carbon reduction. They also recognise the opportunities that may become available should we get behind a carbon reduction program that cannot only reduce carbon but enable energy independence and create high value employment opportunities. The feasibility study and decision support tools empower the community members to understand the analysis and options and make decisions that make a real impact on their future.”
“Decarbonisation can take shape in many ways on Valentia. The initial focus is to decarbonise the heating systems on the island. Our energy master plan identified that in our residential heating systems, 40% consumed oil or gas, while 20% consumes carbon intensive turf or coal. Hydrogen can provide an achieveable transition path for decarbonising this area. We also have a plastics factory which uses significant volumes of gas as part of its manufacturing process, and hydrogen offers a real alternative here also.
“The ferry is a key service to the community of Valentia. Our ferry is due for replacement and a hydrogen fuel vessel would complement our decarbonisation strategy. We have seen funding models for such vessels in Orkney and Norway, and we see no reason why this model cannot be repeated in Valentia.”
Both Rathlin and Valentia are areas of natural beauty but the communities want to embrace the clean energy option. The lighthouse on Rathlin was built into the cliff face between 1912-1917 and the light was first exhibited in 1919. It is situated just 11 miles in distance from the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland. The Valentia lighthouse first exhibited light in 1841 and on a good day one can see the UNESCO World Heritage Site Skellig Michael and the remote Blasket Islands from the lighthouse site.

The desire to turn Rathlin into a full green economy will be welcomed for economic , environmental and educational reasons. Michael and the Rathlin Development Community Association want to develop their green energy initiative and have posted a partner search on the H2020 call ‘Decarbonising Islands Using Renewable Energies and Hydrogen-H2 Islands’. The scope of such a project covers the complete value chain of H2 (production, transport, storage, distribution) in order to decarbonise an island. The solution should provide energy flexibility and improve the islands system resilience through the use of renewable hydrogen, acting as a buffer. Hydrogen can enable sector coupling where you can manage seasonal energy and H2 production demand balancing and allow a large integration of renewable energy on the island. All the hydrogen is produced from the renewable energy capacity on the island. An example is how Sardinia became ‘hydrogen ready’.
These two islands, Rathlin and Valentia, may be 395 miles apart but their peaceful relaxed atmosphere together with the islands long histories attracts many visitors. Both are attractive tourist destinations, both have small native populations in their hundreds, both have a ferry, Valentia has a lighthouse, Rathlin has 3, and both were communication leaders of their time. Valentia was the eastern terminis of the first commercially viable transatlantic cable. Rathlin was where the first commercial wireless telegraphy link was established. Now in 2020 both strive for an energy security with green hydrogen as the catalyst. Both now strive for low carbon economies and a sustainable tourism based on green hydrogen. Rathlin’s plan is for tourism, energy and the economy , 360˚ Destination Green ‘2030 goals are to make a clean energy transition to zero carbon through the use of Green H2, to energise the low carbon economy and develop the tourism initiative’.

The key strategic objective of both is to use green hydrogen as the catalyst to future proof the islands socially, economically and environmentally. The rugged features and the distinct history does not hide a new ambition to be trendsetters for the rest of the remote communities in Europe to follow.
Already in 2020 a paper `Hydrogen From Offshore Wind, Investor Perspective On The Profitablity Of A Hybrid System Including For Curtailment’ extended the debate. The authors included researchers from the MaREI centre in Cork. Their words are now ringing true as they wrote, “As we continue to decarbonise our energy systems there is an increasing interest in and potential to develop offshore windfarms.”
Michael says: “We see green H2 as a sustainable fuel across the Island , everything from our lifeline ferries, cars and commercial transport, domestic and commercial heating systems – all of which bring our carbon footprint closer to zero.”
Indeed it beggars the question can the island indirectly help build a more competitive Northern Ireland energy market, perhaps the Community Action Renewable programmes of the past may not have had Rathlin top of their plans ?
Michael is positive saying: “We have always seen islands as microcosiums of wider society. Projects like green H2 production, storage and distribution are challenging in remote locations, if an Island can achieve this with its limitations then anywhere can.”

Michael also sees job creation as a distinct possibility in this new Green H2 world saying: “Yes as the renewable energy operation will require management and maintenence as well as any associated H2 plant. H2 will have to be distributed to customers on a retail basis. Once we start this journey seriously other projects and developments will create employment in their own fields, perhaps through pilot projects, education etc. “
There is a wider discussion about an unbalanced energy demand due to tourism demands at different times of the year, Michael is clear what he would like to see in relation to this dynamic, “ Firstly a reduction in energy usage throughout the year. Secondly we are actively trying to expand our tourist season over the entire year if possible. We hope to attract the “right kind” of tourist going forward. More of those seeking to explore the Island because of our sustainable development and learn from it.”
Both communities strive for energy security with green hydrogen as the catalyst. The catalyst can lead to other growth, energy sustainability, community stability and organic firmness. Hydrogen can be produced without a carbon footprint and hydrogen has a high energy density making it suitable for long term storage.
Colum from the Valentia group tells of their particular journey, “Our priorities right now are very much focused on getting funding for a pilot program to commence producing hydrogen. This comes off the back of a strong foundation of analysis, documentation and community support. Having completed an Energy Master Plan (funded by SEAI), we got a clear baseline of what our baseline Energy consumption was on the island. From this a register of opportunities was created and an energy strategy was defined. This strategy identified hydrogen as an integral part of our journey to energy independence. Following on from this we completed a feasibility study on the production of green hydrogen in a community owned setting. Following a series of community meetings, we got overwhelming buy in from the community on Valentia and a strong mandate to follow through on the strategy on the behalf of the community.”

Colum agrees with the message if you focus on sustainability, business can gain and there are environmental and financial benefits maintaining ,“I could not agree more. We are all aware of a number of financial risks associated with consumption of fossil fuels. We have seen the volatile nature of oil prices and its very nature leads to uncertainty in a commercial environment. We are also at the beginning of the introduction of carbon taxes which will only add to the bottom line costs. The introduction of a sustainably sourced fuel which can be produced in a constant supply of price can only be an attractive offering to commercial organisations. Conversations we have with local businesses say the cost of energy is a major priority for them to stay competitive. “
Mobility, heating , marine are all areas that can benefit and as Colum explains that’s not all : “Tourism is an integral part in our local economy and developing a tourism friendly channel is key for us. We have structured the energy co-op so that an education stream can be created. This stream will look to develop a ‘Cool Planets’ Experience, which will build an education experience on sustainable energy. This can be a link to the Eco tourism sector.”
A new energy plan is vital argues Colum and a hydrogen solution can produce jobs, Colum says: “Short term this has provided a focal point for the community to have a real conversation about the opportunities associated with carbon reduction and how we can take a community based approach to the challenge. Long term we have the opportunity to create valuable employment for the island and achieve energy independence.
“A community owned model will be key to this. This could lead to roles in engineering, transport and education. This proposition is very exciting for us.”

Innovation in the energy world is alive and well on these two islands.