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Ecoisland: a greenprint for a sustainable future



Alex Blackburne caught up with David Green, founder of the Ecoisland Partnership, a project set up with the aim of transforming the Isle of Wight into the first sustainable region in Britain. He begins by outlining where the idea came from.

The original idea of an eco-island was mine. I came up with the idea of trying to make the Isle of Wight, where we’re based, the first sustainable region in Britain about seven years ago. I committed to launching the scheme, I got the council involved and they got excited about it. They did a big launch followed by a big green picnic – a public event which attracted 7,000 people, the most successful first time event in council history. But unfortunately, the CEO, who was the fire-in-the-belly guy pushing it forward, left and went off to London. So the baby kind of went out with the bath water.

So I then started meeting with a group in the pub every two months. In the end, there were 300 of us meeting in the pub because we didn’t want to let the idea go. We formed a business advisory group out of that, and subsequently, I project managed a Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) project, halving the carbon footprint and cost of 70 social houses, after which, we then set up the community interest company. That launched last year around the middle of April and then we blasted ahead, attracting over 70 partners including some big global names like IBM and Toshiba, and we had a whole series of other players including the likes of Southern Water and SSE.

You either sit like Lemmings on the train that’s going over the cliff, or somewhere somebody at the back says, “Hang on a minute, there has to be a better way than this”

All of this was basically designed to start creating a sustainability model – a greenprint, if you like, which is a blueprint for a greener future: the idea of getting a mix of generating capacity, including tidal, wind, energy-from-waste, geothermal, solar PV and so on.

How did the idea for an Ecoislands Global Summit come about?

On the back of our work on the Isle of Wight, we started to attract a lot of interest from areas like Cornwall and the Midlands. We’ve also had a number of other islands taking an interest in what we’re doing around the UK. And more subsequently, some international islands have taken an interest in this greenprint. So we decided to get everybody together for this Ecoislands Global Summit.

There will be a chance for them to come to a workshop on the first day and start to see what it is that we’re doing, and sharing the knowledge and understanding that we’ve got, introducing them to our partners and the greenprint as an idea, and the hopefully signing them up to a load of carbon reduction commitments to join an Ecoislands Accord, which will then start to demonstrate to continents and other countries around the world just what sustainable communities can be.

Our theory is that it’s the smallest places that can often make the greatest change. Islands are very easy to define and manage, and also to measure. We’re putting in an intelligent operations centre from IBM which will enable us to measure and quantify everything, and hopefully we’ll be able to report over a period of three to four years the impact that we’ve able to have on the planet in terms of greening up energy supplies and making areas and islands more sustainable. Obviously it doesn’t have to be an island; it could be a region or a country. In a sense, the planet is an island in the solar system. It’s a model that is basically designed to try and get everybody thinking about living within their own footprint.

David Green was named sustainability executive of the year at the BusinessGreen Leaders Awards 2012. He's seen here collecting his trophy from former Green Party leader, Caroline Lucas. Photo: Ecoisland.

And so the Isle of Wight will be acting as the example of what a sustainable region will look like?

Yes, the Isle of Wight becomes the showcase, the living laboratory, the proof of concept, the first mover, Ecoislands One. Basically, so we can get the bugs out of the system, the research and development department makes sure that all the software and hardware are running and that the opportunity is there to roll it out on a much wider scale.

Part of the trouble with all of this is that people are talking about smart grid everywhere, but nobody really knows what one looks like. To fully integrate a smart grid over an island like ours is quite a challenge, even for the technical experts, so we actually want to do one here, show what the potential of it is, demonstrate the reality of it and then hopefully over a period of years, spread that knowledge and understanding out to other regions around the globe. It’s really just a matter of trying to get people on board.

Part of the message we’re carrying with this Summit is that it doesn’t take much to make a difference. You only need a small group within a community or an individual who’s fired up with the idea to start making change, and obviously if we can give them the toolkit, then they can start applying that in their region and hopefully get some of the results that we’re getting here too.

What kind of areas have you attracted to this idea, and so will be attending the Summit in October?

The local ones are easier to grasp and understand. A lot of the Highlands and islands, the Isle of Man and some of the Channel Islands have shown an interest. Obviously some of the islands in Scotland are already on the curve – Egg, Mull, Shetland, Orkney. We’re not claiming to be the only one with bright ideas, we’re trying to bring together that consensus view, that knowledge and understanding, and share that across between the communities around the world. We’re making a very determined effort to get the best of policy and the best of technologies, and then through the interrelatedness of these islands, demonstrate major change.

Our aim is to get completely energy self-sufficient by 2020 and that’s achievable as far as we can see. We use about 600 gigawatt hours of electricity in total a year, with a peak of about 167 megawatts (MW), down to about 30MW on a Sunday morning. We’re hoping that with a degree of balancing and also a degree of storage, renewable generation capacity of around 120MW might well provide a kind of blanket coverage and sufficient with good demand-side management of reductions to get us into our own energy footprint and hopefully make us a net energy exporter to the big island to the north.

Whilst it’s admirable to see islands and smaller regions clubbing together to tackle climate change, there is an argument that says all this good work is being undone by the likes of China, the US and a number of rapidly developing countries, all of whom are polluters on a completely different scale. What can the Ecoislands Global Summit do about this?

The exciting thing about this is giants like China and the US are difficult nuts to crack. But in some ways, what you need is inspiration from somewhere. You either sit like Lemmings on the train that’s going over the cliff, or somewhere somebody at the back says, “Hang on a minute, there has to be a better way than this”.

I think it’s part of a change, a paradigm shift and I think it’s starting to affect the corporates that we’re working with

What we’re hoping is that with a concerted effort and with great will, we’ll be able to get away from what I’ve endearingly called ‘consensus insipidus’, which is how I’d describe quite a lot of these other international conferences, because what they tend to do is go at the rate of the slowest, a bit like a group of hill walkers. That means that everybody has to agree on everything before anything ever gets signed. What we’re trying to do is the opposite; go out there as the leaders of sustainable communities globally and asking other people to join us, so setting the standards and the benchmarks much, much higher and aiming towards that self-sufficiency or sustainability piece.

I think by doing that, and by showing these big countries that it’s achievable, we’ll actually send a very strong message out, which is if we can do it, why can’t you? If we’re committed to it, why aren’t you? Really, the mentality is all about seeing us all on an island and getting us all to think about managing our lives in terms of a lighter footprint on the land, living within our natural resources and balancing nature.

It was recently announced that there would be an Ecoislands Fund launched. What’s this for and why is it needed?

Part of the challenge for us is that without money, a lot of these things don’t get done. Even if the spirit is willing and all the people are aligned, quite a lot of this change does actually require quite large amounts of capital funding. A lot of these communities, particularly small communities, find it very, very difficult to raise funds. The governments doesn’t seem to be out there with real money to back this up, and even the subsidies don’t generate enough private investment to bring in the kind of investment that’s necessary.

We set about securing a different financial model that will place, by Christmas of this year, a substantial amount of money in an investment fund. We could, therefore, develop other regions away from the Isle of Wight. We obviously need to start here, we’re focusing here first, because we need to be a demonstrator and get on the sustainability path in a major way somewhere, but I think it does matter that there may then be funding for other regions as well.

We’ve tried to build the fund on a basis of anticipating, taking not only the greenprint, but also maybe some of our partners and some of our investment opportunities across to these other islands, and what we’re looking for is decarbonising as much as we possibly can with the funding we’ve got. Every island will have its own kind of mix, a different propensity to different technologies – there will always be a mix – but our hope is that we’ll be able to use some of this global investment fund towards helping some of those other regions as well.

Finally, what are your hopes for the Ecoislands Global Summit?

I want to feel that this message, particularly about other parts of the world and how this can be picked up and carried to those, is going to start to be magnified.  I’m sure the Summit will be a huge success and I’m sure the message that comes out of it on a media level will be very powerful. It’s really about getting things done, and not sitting waiting for the cavalry to come over the hill, but basically floating our own boats and taking our destinies into our own hands and taking the story up the road on the back of the will of the people which I think needs inspiring.

I think it’s part of a change, a paradigm shift and I think it’s starting to affect the corporates that we’re working with. Everybody’s willing us on and I’m very hopeful that we’ll deliver the goods.

Further reading:

World communities to flock to Isle of Wight for Ecoislands Global Summit

The Island President: one man’s fight for survival against the odds

Swimming against the tide: the Pacific nations fighting a losing battle with climate change

Rising sea levels force Pacific Islanders to relocate

Developing world at ‘extreme risk’ of climate change


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