The Aran Islands, known for strong Irish culture and beautiful, windswept landscapes, have a new claim to fame. They are setting the standard for energy independence.
The co-op behind the drive aims to make the islands, which sit at the mouth of Galway Bay on Ireland’s west coast, energy independent by 2022. It also wants to create “an example of best practice in sustainability to the rest of Ireland and to the world”.
Residents formed Comharchumann Fuinnimh Oileáin Árann Teo, the Aran Islands Energy Co-op, to secure the future energy needs of the three islands. Its strategy is to gain a controlling interest in local energy production, while gradually removing dependency on fossil fuels in favour of more sustainable energy sources. It is run by volunteers.
Through the co-op, local people have partnered with the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) to deliver community-led action. Some 353 homes and community buildings – two thirds of the buildings on the islands – have already completed energy upgrades, improving insulation levels and installing efficient heating systems. This has achieved islanders annual energy savings of €250,000.
Electric vehicles have been in use here since 2010, and have helped reduce reliance on imported energy for transport by 68%. Analysis shows that replacing heating systems with heat pumps powered by wind or wave energy could reduce energy dependence further. The co-op is examining the feasibility of wind turbines and searching for an appropriate location.
SEAI says the goal of carbon neutrality by 2022 is now “entirely achievable”. Energy upgrades and greater use of renewable energy will reduce fossil fuel imports to the islands by a total of 84%. Exports of locally produced electricity will complete the journey to total energy independence.
Ireland’s energy minister Alex White visited the islands and said: “The Aran Islanders’ ambition to become carbon neutral has already delivered many benefits to the islands. Energy efficiency and renewables will be at the core of the energy White Paper, which I will publish in the autumn.
“I think the vision set out for the Aran Islands could be replicated to maximise energy efficiency and the use of renewables in communities across the country. This would help us to secure an affordable, low-carbon energy future with minimal reliance on expensive imported fossil fuels.”
Dara Ó Maoildhia, chairman of Comharchumann Fuinnimh Oileáín Árann Teoranta (Aran Islands Renewable Energy Ltd) said the vision of the islands becoming carbon neutral could not be achieved without the full support of the government and SEAI.
“The Aran Islands community needs a strong partnership with government, the SEAI, and other agencies to realise its ambition,” he said. “There are many challenges to achieving what is an ambitious vision, but I’m confident that this offshore community working closely with government and key partners will achieve its goals.”
He added that craft beer, seaweed and vegetable businesses could be developed in tandem with sustainable energy development.
Cormac Walsh, chief executive of Energy Co-operatives Ireland (ECI), which also works with co-ops in Mayo, Longford, Dublin and Kerry, said: “ECI have now established five energy co-ops throughout Ireland. Each one of these is creating jobs and enabling communities to take control of their own energy use.
“Every community in Ireland can achieve the same goals as the Aran Islands. Together with RESCOOP, our European partners, and ICOS, we are rolling out a national network of community -owned energy co-ops that can transform the Irish energy sector to the benefit of all.”