News that 10 MLAs and MPs have written to the Northern Ireland Secretary of State to promote a hydrogen economy has been broadly welcomed by spokesmen from two Irish islands now espousing the merits of hydrogen as well as eco tourism.
The Rathlin lighthouse
Colum O’Connell, Chairman of the Valentia Island Energy Group in Kerry said, “What we are looking to introduce here is a fundamental shift in how we think about decarbonization. Other governments around the world are recognizing the opportunities hydrogen can bring and are developing strategies to develop green hydrogen. Though hydrogen is included as an opportunity in the recent program for government, we need to see more at national level on what our strategy is.”
A decade of progress for NI could be wiped out in the space of a year in terms of the economy and perhaps new incentives and directions now need to be adopted. The Economy Minister Diane Dodds is on record as saying that over 100,000 people could be out of work by the end of this year. Down south the government has made £26 million available to help tourism and hospitality businesses offset some of the costs of adapting their operations for reopening under COVID-19 conditions. The COVID-19 Adaptation Fund will be administered by Failte Ireland.
Michael Cecil, Rathlin Development and Community Association Chairman said this week, “Northern Ireland’s newly restored regional government now recognizes that practical and well resourced commitments that address the impact of the climate crisis and support the growth of carbon reduction and renewable energy sources must play a significant part in COVID-19 recovery plans as well as the new program for government in the coming decade.
“Rathlin offers an ideal opportunity to trial the practicalities of this commitment. Relatively low level investment from government in ‘quick win’ initiatives such as home insulation, upgraded domestic and commercial heating plants, the promotion of electric vehicles and possibly electric bicycles for the tourism market would all have an immediate positive impact. “
Green tourism can be made sustainable and be part of a 360˚ strategy not in isolation argues Cecil, who says, “Green tourism must become 360˚ in strategic design rather than the piecemeal reality of today. It must start with the virtual presentation of a holistic strategy that includes the transport to the island. Producing small scale projects of green tourism such as plastic reduction and recyclable wrapping are important and immediately accessible actions.
“They are still more important as evidence of a greater commitment to a wider strategy. Almost half of the carbon pollution comes from the ferries that bring people and goods to and from the island. Addressing this issue would be a strong step forward that would have a strong attraction for visitors committed to the green dynamic… and stimulate the island’s drive to go further with the commitment to green tourism.”
Visitors in Northern Ireland prefer to stay in accommodations with green credentials and 25% are willing to pay more for products and services that are eco friendly according to Tourism NI.
O’Connell knows the Valentia island experience can adapt to these changing times saying, “We believe there is massive potential in eco tourism, also referred to as sustainable tourism. There was a report issued on eco tourism in 2017 that said 35 % globally are likely to book eco tourism holidays. Besides climate changes and the rise of eco-conscious consumers, trends such as over-tourism, the desire for transformative travel experiences and the growing sharing economy are also driving the shift towards sustainable tourism. This is driving the appeal of eco-holidays among previously untapped cohorts. Destinations such as Valentia and Rathlin appeal to such markets.”
The Rathlin lighthouse and the Valentia Cable Station can become beacons for development, a fact not lost on O’Connell, who says, “As part of the Foundation Boards project to get UNESCO recognition for Valentia’s transatlantic cable program, funding has been made available by the government to restore the cable station and introduce a Digital Hub. This would be a major draw for families looking to move from cities to more rural settings utilizing remote working as their main employment.”
Rathlin has its own local Biodiversity Action Plan developed through consultation and support from the NI environmental agencies. Small communities on these islands are ideal places to trial energy production from wind, wave and tidal But now the island can also possibly look forward to accommodating educational visits to see the islands energy hubs work.
Cecil does foresee such progress, saying, “Innovative energy hubs will supply educational opportunities for study and research from primary school through to third and advanced education levels. They will provide opportunity for senior level research in the development of appropriate technology. Short day visits, including some of the other attractions of an island visit will set the value of green energy hubs in the immediate and global contexts of climate change and with strong visual and experiential impact.
“Rathlin has been used to educational day visits from schools and universities and is increasingly providing opportunity for postgraduate research. The development of innovate energy hub facilities on the island, particularly linked to the facilities planned for the East Lighthouse site, will open the door for study visits that can consider future growth and technology in holistic ways, linking science and technology with biology and the environment as well as the human geography interactions with the immediacy of small, committed communities constantly searching for better ways to live in our challenging context.”
All this education can lead to job development too as O’Connell maintains, arguing, “Our strategy if successfully implemented will be a game change in terms of job creation. Producing hydrogen from offshore wind has the potential to create engineering, marine and transport jobs. With the STEM education program you can have a number of education and research roles. Valentia and Rathlin are perfect for small concepts for a larger scale rollout at national level.”