How can small communities in remote and rural areas of Europe put their abundant renewable energy sources into use and become self-sufficient with green energy in the near future? Find out how Interreg cooperation can help achieve just that.need translation with this page?
On 5th August 2016, an underwater electricity cable broke a couple of kilometres off Inis Mór, one of the Aran Islands (Ireland), plunging the islanders into darkness for 4 days. The broadband was affected, medications in the fridge had to be binned and quantities of frozen food had to be thrown away, as the islanders heavily rely on freezers due to the possible ferry disruption in bad weather.
In November 2019, a similar story unfold in the valleys of Piemonte and Alto Adige (Italy), at the foot of the Alps. Several small communities were also left in darkness after an early and heavy snowfall. While the electricity grid lines were damaged, the maintenance teams could not reach them because the roads were inaccessible due to the snow. For several hours, people were left without electricity and heating.
What the Aran Islands and the Alpine valley have in common is their remote location and abundance of renewable energy sources
What the Aran Islands and the Alpine valleys have in common is their rural and remote location, dispersed demography, weak connections to the upstream electric grid infrastructure, and sometimes an underdeveloped infrastructure which together with extreme weather conditions and natural risk, makes them more vulnerable to power outages. But what they also have in common is abundant renewable energy sources available locally. The Alps have biomass, hydropower and green clusters, and the Northern Periphery of Europe has wind energy.
Having renewable energy sources available at your doorstep is not enough to fix the energy security issue
Often, where renewables are implemented, the generated electricity or heat exceeds the needs of the local population. At the same time, where the electric grid infrastructure is underdeveloped, green electricity production is curtailed, leaving clean energy unharnessed. While on one side, renewable energy sources have the potential to satisfy the energy demand of entire villages in the Alps and Northern Periphery of Europe, on the other side before an infrastructural investment can be made, it is necessary to find a solution for storing excess energy to meet and ensure an energy balance in the local energy grids. All things considered, investing in renewable energy resources infrastructure is a challenging decision to make for small communities with limited capacity and economic resources.
Hydrogen, the not-so-secret ingredient for a greener future
The HUGE project looks at the solutions offered by hydrogen, both as a viable energy option for a variety of end uses (heating, transport and industry) as well as for storing green energy as part of grid balancing in remote, small microgrids based on renewable energy. The opportunities offered by hydrogen can empower non-grid connected communities to become self-sufficient with green energy in the near future.
“HUGE works like a one-stop-shop where a local energy community is going to find the knowledge and the tools to start the decision-making process to see whether the hydrogen-renewable energy chain is at all an option for them.” Explains Desislava Todorova, from the Environmental Research Institute, North Highland College UHI, Scotland, Lead partner of HUGE.
To empower local communities to decide on the suitability of hydrogen solutions, HUGE developed a set of tools embedding technical, economic and business development factors. Following a guided decision-making process, it will be easier to answer questions such us: does it make sense to invest in a hydrogen project here? Which technological solution is best suited, and the most economically advantageous, for our location?
To help the local energy community in designing a comprehensive and long-term approach, in addition to technical, environmental and economic aspects, also wider social benefits are included in HUGE’s approach. This includes looking at upskilling opportunities, core and ancillary business development opportunities along the hydrogen value chain, market access and growth opportunities. This will help to answer questions such as: what new expertise and skills do we need on-site to maintain our new technology? What new businesses will the hydrogen supply chain create?
Accelerating change by example
A well-informed community is in a better position for making decisions that impact across generations, and with the help of examples from other regions, the uptake of innovative approaches may be even faster. For this reason, pilot studies complement knowledge development in HUGE. “With the pilot case studies in Scotland, Iceland, Finland, Faroes Islands, Northern Ireland and Ireland we want to exemplify what is possible and to show that it is replicable by using the tools prepared by the project” continues Desislava. Pilot cases display various applications of hydrogen (domestic, road transport, maritime transport, industrial etc.), from alternative means of production (wind turbine or photo-voltaic panels) and at different maturity levels.
“Some partners have more experience in certain fields, like Iceland with the production of hydrogen from geothermal energy and already established refuelling stations for vehicles, while our Finnish partners are already exploring the potential applications of hydrogen at the industrial level. In Scotland, we are working with using hydrogen for heating solutions in housing, while in the Faroe Islands we are looking to transform some of the fishing boats to run with hydrogen.”
Such variety allows HUGE to develop tools that are applicable to a broad range of scenarios, and at the same time, it gives the opportunity to communities to build on the knowledge and experience of others, skip some of the trial and error steps and move faster to the solutions which work best in similar contexts.
Overcoming obstacles to a more widespread use of microgrids
The project ALPGRIDS aims at increasing the usage of renewable energy in the Alps. In remote areas, this objective can be supported by advanced energy systems such as microgrids. A microgrid is a small network of electricity users with a local source of energy, that is able to function independently. Partners of the ALPGRIDS project identified obstacles to a more widespread use of microgrids. They lie in particular within regulatory issues and organisational business challenges. To tackle these obstacles, the project is developing an Alpine microgrid model based on concrete cases and providing guidance to local energy stakeholders. The guide addresses topics such as governance, regulation, financing, available technical solutions and market players.
The 70 national, macro-regional, regional and local policy makers of five countries involved in the project are convinced that the establishment of Local Energy Communities helps citizens to become more actively engaged in the energy transition of their region. For Julije Domac, President of the Federation of Regions and Energy Agencies (Fedarene), “Microgrids have a high potential to support your community decarbonisation and energy transition”. For local communities, municipalities and energy stakeholders, the key benefits of microgrids are an increase in their energy autonomy, improved resilience of electricity networks in the case of emergencies and power outages, as well as a reduction of electric losses and infrastructure costs. Small energy grids and renewable energy sources already exist in many areas; what is lacking is a good connection to the main energy grids.
In the Slovene pilot site of the Municipality of Selnica ob Dravi, ALPGRIDS partners are developing a feasibility study of microgrids for public buildings, to learn more about the technical and legal aspects of implementing an energy community. The pilot microgrid involved the town hall, school, kindergarten, cultural centre and the fire station in Selnica ob Dravi. Thanks to the insights gained from this and from the other pilot sites, the application of microgrids will be supported through guidelines for decision-makers and the improvement of existing regulations. “Local Energy Communities implementing microgrid solutions is a win for all approach”, emphasises Patrick Biard, the ALPGRIDS project coordinator.
Joining the global fight for climate change while seeking to increase local energy self-sufficiency and resilience is supporting positive transitions on many levels – what is needed is only an enabling environment and the involvement of local users.
Increasing access and investment readiness to renewable energy solutions plays a major role when it comes to transitioning to a more sustainable Europe. This transition can be a slow process which is why cooperation is important to fast-track knowledge transfer, empower communities and create an environment that enables a smooth implementation towards greener solutions.
Watch HUGE explainer video
Michela Gaifami works as a Communication Manager at the Interreg Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme.
Clotilde Mahé and Miriam Stuhlmueller work as Communication Managers at the Interreg Alpine Space Programme.
This article is part of a series on how transnational cooperation contributes to the EU Green Deal. Click here to see all stories.