Can the Isle of Man be self-sufficient in green energy?

In this opinion piece, Dr Dave Quirk, co-founder of the Energy and Sustainability Centre Isle of Man addresses the question: Can the Isle of Man be self-sufficient in green energy.

In this opinion piece, Dr Dave Quirk, co-founder of the Energy and Sustainability Centre Isle of Man addresses the question: Can the Isle of Man be self-sufficient in green energy.

UNESCO Biosphere Isle of Man newsletter articles usually cover personal experiences of Manx wildlife, landscape and culture, including the many advantages of living on the Isle of Man.

But this piece is a little different, looking instead at the future of the Island in relation to the climate and how we utilise the planet.

Efforts to address global warming have created a mix of emotions. There is certainly a fear of what is to come, while a minority deny there is even a problem to solve. Other people are looking to do something positive at a local level but are justifiably unsure whether to invest in heat pumps, solar panels, home insulation, electric vehicles or just to wait.

The view put forward here is that a sustainable future for the Isle of Man is something we can embrace and look forward to. And, in contrast to Covid-19, it is possible to have some control over what happens.

Motivation

The Energy and Sustainability Centre Isle of Man (ESC) is a Manx charity set up by Ralph Peake, John Boucher, David Parnell and, myself to research, educate and advise in the practicalities of cutting emissions of greenhouse gases.

The Island is now legally committed to net zero emissions by 2050, although the path to reach this goal is not yet clear.

There is a common perception that action on climate change will lead to increased costs for electricity and other forms of power. In actual fact, the Isle of Man has its own valuable resources of wind, sun, water and hills which represent an economic opportunity. The question is how to make renewable energy work in our favour?

If we can effectively harness, store and utilise this local power, it offers the prospect of stable energy prices and warmer homes, as well as significant economic benefit. It also takes a responsible approach to emissions.

As we are all painfully aware, fossil fuel prices are unpredictable and their continued use is unsustainable.

Furthermore, it is often forgotten that finding, developing, producing, processing and transporting oil and gas is a highly complex process. In comparison, wind, solar and hydro technologies are relatively simple and the costs of generating renewable electricity is now lower than from traditional power plants. There are, however, important issues which have to be solved before we can drop our reliance on fossil fuels.

Why change?

Current emissions of greenhouse gases on the Isle of Man are equivalent to burning more than 1500 hectares (15 km2) of mature forest every year. It takes many years to grow trees, so to capture this amount of carbon dioxide would require a forest which is triple the size of the Isle of Man or a mature woodland 3000 times larger than the Meary Veg plantation. It is clearly impractical to offset these emissions meaning we will have to stop producing them.

Seeing as more than 85% of Manx emissions are related to energy – the use of oil and gas in electricity generation, heating and transport – this is where we need to turn our attention. The change to sustainable sources of power is the so-called energy transition.

[We want to focus here on solutions but if you want to learn more about climate change and emissions you can find relevant information here on our website].

Most people are uncertain what the future holds but there are also those who are strongly against the idea of change. In spite of the wide range of views, it is important to find common ground as, collectively, society will need to agree on what steps to take to reduce emissions. One way is to be open about the advantages and disadvantages of alternative paths through the energy transition, much of which revolves around economics.

Potential solutions

Since the outset, ESC has focussed on the question can the Isle of Man become self-sufficient in low-carbon power? Manx sources of renewable energy such as wind and solar could, in theory, generate many more times power than is consumed on the Island. This offers a route to net zero emissions, while avoiding the insecurity of imported fuels and electricity.

The practical challenge is that wind and sun are intermittent, varying in strength according to weather and daylight. An intermittent power supply does not fit well with the electricity grid, which requires stable alternating current and also the flexibility to be quickly adjusted to meet variations in demand. At least part of the solution is to store surplus energy for when it is needed.

In an ideal world, energy storage would have been integrated into plans for the energy transition from the outset. However, many Governments, including the UK and Ireland, have only started to address the issue. In addition, electricity consumption will increase as heating and transport switches to low-carbon electricity and alternatives such as hydrogen from electrolysis. This means it is inevitable that the grid will have to be upgraded and strengthened.

Considering the scale of the required investments, ESC has been investigating ways to attract the private sector. The good news is that there is no shortage of companies interested in financing and managing green energy projects, provided the Island is “open for business”. Regulations which would attract investment might include a guaranteed price for supplying the local market and a means of exporting surplus power through sub-sea cables. The Isle of Man has a proud history of being at the forefront of new technologies, from the Manx Electric Railway through to the first 3G mobile phone network. We could now play a leading role in the energy transition.

It is important that the Island gets the most benefit out of its renewable resources meaning that decision-makers need to know what is possible and what makes most sense for the Island. In anticipation of this, ESC has already evaluated a wide range of low-carbon technologies. From this evaluation, the best options can be used to build a working model of the future system where 1) the Island is in control of its own energy; 2) the power supply is secure, stable and cost-effective; 3) the private sector pays for and manages the projects; 4) there is optimum benefit in the form of new industry, jobs and revenue.

Our initial calculations suggest that a combination of wind, solar and stored hydro-power will pay for itself. The next part is to use advanced software to evaluate different scenarios for both resilience and economic return, as well as to test alternative ideas. It is ESC’s view that this will allow a self-sufficient energy system to be built which covers all aspects of Manx power, including heating and transport. The Isle of Man Government itself has conducted a detailed modelling exercise, the results of which can be found here.

Conclusions

Through a strategy to generate and store renewable energy, the Island’s commitment to net zero emissions can provide three benefits to the Isle of Man – affordable power, an improved natural environment and a source of sustainable commercial activity. With appropriate legislation, the private sector can pay for and manage the investments because green energy has value. In our view, it is essential that we work together to achieve this.

The Energy and Sustainability Centre Isle of Man aims to advance climate change commitments by providing objective information and by facilitating collaboration between industry, Government, non-commercial organizations and the local community. If you would like to find out more or become involved, visit its website

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