Faced with the ticking clock of climate change and eco-catastrophe, the need for transition to clean, renewable energy is an urgent one. Energy democracy expert Marula Tsagkari envisages future scenarios for two renewable energy communities recently launched on pioneering islands in Southern Europe, exploring the potential pitfalls in the path to sustainability and how citizen choices can forge a thriving, self-sufficient community by 2049.

Islands are ideal niches for the development of renewable energy. Remoteness, a common lack of fossil fuel sources, vulnerability to climate change, and risk of environmental disasters are some of the features that make it urgent for islands to transform into low-carbon, sustainable territories. As a response to this challenge, in 2015, two small islands in Europe, 5000 kilometers apart, committed to promote renewables to ensure energy security and independence.

On Tilos in the south-east of the Aegean Sea in Greece, the 500 inhabitants decided to make it the first self-sufficient island in the Mediterranean. Prior to that decision, the island was fully dependent on unreliable, costly and polluting diesel generators. To achieve a transition to self-sufficiency and sustainability, the municipality of the island, with technical support from a Greek university and with funding from the European Union, designed a hybrid system for electricity production and storage. The system is made up of an 800-kilowatt turbine, a small 160-kilowatt photovoltaic park, and a battery storage system of 2.4 megawatt-hours.

Around the same time, over to the far west of Europe, the small island of Graciosa was setting off on a similar course. This community in the Spanish Canary Islands decided to go 100-per-cent renewable and, in 2017, inaugurated a 4.5-megawatt wind farm, 1-megawatt solar panel, and a battery storage system of 3.2 megawatt-hours. Yet despite their common starting points, the sustainable paths taken by the two communities were to soon diverge leading to, by 2049, very different realities on the two islands.

Tilos in 2049

While Tilos’s energy project materialised in 2019, 30 years later, its ambitious target of 100-per-cent self-sufficiency still remains far away. The island’s population has almost doubled since then, and its energy demand with it. The nearly 100 new homes, although built with cutting-edge technology, that house the new residents require more energy than first estimates expected. On the economic front, Tilos’s port has been transformed into an important gateway and the numbers of tourists and products arriving daily well exceed 2015 levels. After setting out with such high hopes, how did it get to this point?

In 2016, the Tilos municipality decided to promote the island as a destination for eco-tourism. Still suffering from Greece’s severe economic crisis, the move looked to bring in valuable revenue for the local population and to attract investment. However, under pressure from foreign investors, the municipality soon effectively abandoned the idea of eco-tourism, even if they continued to pay it lip service. High-end tourism for travelers coming from abroad became the model of choice.

Locals were encouraged to work with the big investors targeting the island through travel and tourism workshops. As local businesses turned increasingly towards tourism and the number of visitors began to rise, so too did energy demand. To make matters worse, in 2025, the island’s cooperative increased its production of local goods to cater for the tourist trade and growing export demand. The local government welcomed the decision and regarded the investment as an important step for the development of the island. However, the expanded production demanded more local agricultural products, which in turn required more energy, land, and water.

What started as a community-owned project is now managed by a big foreign corporation that bought the shares back in 2040.

There is no doubt that now, in 2049, the island’s economy is flourishing. Unemployment is at zero and Tilos is a fashionable destination for well-off, sustainability-minded tourists. The population is wealthier than ever and the local government is well supported. Yet despite the apparent good times, problems are just about to begin for the small island.

On the one hand, the inability of the local renewable sources to meet energy demand requires  more solar power systems and new wind turbines to be installed. More land will be occupied and noise pollution will increase. Moreover, the productive capacity of the already degraded ecosystem will be further undermined. The existing renewable energy systems have an average lifespan of 30 to 40 years. They will soon need replacing and maintenance costs are already high. What started as a community-owned project is now managed by a big foreign corporation that bought the shares back in 2040. Back then, the municipality was struggling to fund further capacity and the new generation of islanders was less and less committed to the project. At that point, privatisation seemed like the best option.

The Tilos project was once considered one of the most promising projects in Europe. But those expectations were never met. Its aim of achieving 100-per-cent self-sufficiency proved elusive and renewable energy only currently covers a small proportion of the ever-rising demand. Many now see 100-per-cent sustainability as impossible, even on a small island like Tilos.

Graciosa in 2049

In Graciosa, the demand for electricity has not increased since 2015, despite a slight increase in population. How? The island’s inhabitants have managed to keep it stable by lowering consumption and making lifestyle changes.

A few years after the launch of Graciosa’s self-sufficiency project in 2015, the local citizen’s assembly decided to expand its action beyond renewable energy. A number of groups were established, each with a specific remit such as tourism, transportation, agriculture, culture, business, or education. Working closely with the Graciosa municipality, the groups set about designing a 10-year roadmap, a process that was set to spark the adoption of a whole series of lifestyle changes.

Private cars were banned from the island and only buses and bicycles were allowed. New families began to live in modern eco-friendly co-houses with shared rooms and common spaces. The majority of the older houses on the island were renovated to improve energy efficiency and to accommodate multiple families based on circumstance. Small common gardens were created around the island, whose products are distributed for local consumption. Various workshops and campaigns have been regularly organised in recent years to teach people about lighting, heating and cooling, and water consumption at home.

Of course, like Tilos, the island did not escape the attention of tourists. Life on Graciosa has been deeply affected by the industry. Graciosa is promoted as an unspoiled destination where visitors can experience a simple life, buy traditional products, and live spiritually. This niche was a conscious choice. At a crucial point, the Graciosa municipality cooperated with the local assembly and jointly decided to promote a different kind of tourism, one not built around massive attractions or overconsumption.

agricultural lands, co-working spaces, and a local currency are managed in the spirit of the commons.

Visitors of the island can camp freely, participate in work-sharing activities, and enjoy natural beauty. No cars, yachts, organised excursions, luxury hotels, or expensive restaurants are to be found on the island. The local taverns serve dishes based only on the island’s products, which limits the options if not the flavour. For the past few years, the residents have run the tourist office on a voluntary basis. A group of them have taken on the role of tour guides, while others are responsible for hosting and helping the tourists. The tourists tend to agree that there is no better way to enjoy the island than with the locals. None of the locals were willing to sell their land to the big investors that saw gold in the island. One family was tempted, and sought to develop a large hotel complex, but the plans triggered a series of protests by the locals. In the end, the case was settled in court and construction stopped at an early stage because of the site’s proximity to a protected zone. Only a limited number of tourists choose Graciosa. It lacks many amenities and any kind of luxury, but those who really want to make a change with their holiday choices do come.

As could be expected, Graciosa’s economy is not flourishing in the same way as Tilos’s. The island and its successful self-sufficiency project have largely stayed under the radar. The local people, however, have gained a lot. They live a simple life within planetary boundaries. They consume mostly products that they make themselves and have plenty of free time to dedicate to creativity, personal development, and solidarity. Graciosa residents do not hesitate to offer care and support to those who need it. The collective ownership of the renewable energy systems invigorated the sense of commons and was soon expanded to a whole spectrum of people’s daily activities. Now agricultural lands, co-working spaces, and a local currency are managed in the spirit of the commons. In 2049, even after so many years, the local population remains actively involved in the renewable energy project. Engineers and mechanics work voluntarily for its maintenance and materials are paid through a common fund.

Same past, different futures. . .

Why did two projects that started with the same ambitions, support, and attention turn out so differently in 2049? What changed in these 30 years? Ultimately, it was the choices made by the two communities that determined their different paths. The residents of Tilos saw the success of their renewable energy project as an opportunity to make money and to satisfy a host of needs. Meanwhile, the residents of Graciosa focused on downscaling production and consumption to increase actual wellbeing. Their aspirations went beyond managing the supply and demand of electricity to address environmental sustainability and social justice – a kind of endeavor that Conrad Kunze and Sören Becker call “collective and politically motivated renewable energy projects”.[1] The islands chose between options tied to two faiths: expanding energy systems to sustain continuous growth or downscaling the economy to live within ecological limits.

Moving beyond the local level, one can assume that national and international policies played an important role in shaping the future of these communities. Policies designed to boost political and economic autonomy of small communities can pave the way to make societies like the one envisioned for Graciosa come true. Unconditional minimum income and reduction of working hours are some of the often suggested policies in this vein, though ones which, in 2019, imply bigger changes and seem less likely to be implemented in the next 30 years. Simpler ideas like making funding available for decentralised community renewable energy, free training for local people, and the promotion of solidarity economy initiatives can also do a lot to help community projects fulfill their ambitions. That was the ambition of the local assembly of Graciosa, which, with the support from the municipality, designed a forward-thinking project in the knowledge that the decisions they were taking would determine their future. The assembly not only tried to involve the whole community but also to expand its actions into social and environmental issues, thus building solid foundations for a sustainable future.

Renewable energy projects have the potential to give communities the autonomy to decide and plan their own futures.

The two examples of Tilos and Graciosa are hypothetical scenarios that illustrate how the present decisions of decentralised renewable energy communities (and of any community) can shape their futures. In the present day, more and more communities aiming to become self-sufficient and autonomous through renewable energy are emerging. To Tilos and Graciosa, we can add Samsø in Denmark, Feldheim in Germany, Güssing in Austria, the Isle of Eigg in Scotland, and El Hierro in Spain. The European Union’s 2016 Clean Energy for all Europeans opens the way for citizens to be “active and central players on the energy market of the future” and pushes forward a model of decentralised energy transition with the renewable energy communities at the centre. Yet most southern European governments still focus on large-scale projects and remain locked into the established centralised model. Little attention is being given to how community renewable energy projects can become not only economically viable alternatives but triggers of wider social regeneration.

For this reason, it is important for energy communities to see beyond the present and to frame their projects with a broader social dimension. According American physicist Amory Lovins there are two paths of energy transition: a hard one that emphasises large-scale production controlled by oligopolies, and a soft path that is more decentralised, democratic, and local.[2] The choice is not that simple: choosing the soft energy path does not automatically imply environmental and social justice. On the contrary, a soft energy path can too entail serious dangers if it continually looks to expand to meet increasing demand driven by aggressive growth. These risks can be avoided if communities envision and plan the societies they want to create and to live in from the early stages of the project. Successful planning should not include only energy-related issues but also environmental and social parameters tied to the desired social-ecological transformation, which should match a personal and collective choice and not an imposed ideology.

Renewable energy projects have the potential to give communities the autonomy to decide and plan their own futures. Their modularity and flexibility allows for the development of bottom-up, participative and collective initiatives. Green island initiatives could become hubs for profound social change, but the time for these communities to decide their path is now. After all, 2049 is not that far away.

The post-2018 descriptions presented in this article are imaginary and not based on real data. Many thanks to Brayton Noll for the comments.

[1] Kunze, C., Becker, S. (2015): Collective ownership in renewable energy and opportunities for sustainable degrowth. Sustain. Sci. 10 (3): 425–437.

[2] Amory Lovins (1976) Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken? Foreign affairs (Council on Foreign Relations) 55(1):63-96

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