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Using Island Innovation to Power the Future – James Ellsmoor

Podcast Summary

In this episode of Energy Superheroes, we sit down with James Ellsmoor, CEO of Island Innovation. His company connects islands across the globe, allowing isolated communities to share information on how they can develop sustainably. By bringing together people from different backgrounds – but with the same island-based problems – Island Innovation is encouraging sustainability on islands around the world.

James describes how he got into the small island business, and digs into some of the unique problems and solutions he’s encountered along the way:

  • Originally interested in rural development and sustainable energy, James got his start with solar in California’s Bay Area. After getting involved with the project Solar Heads of State, he began working with island leaders who were taking charge with renewables.
  • James thinks islands can set a leading example for sustainable development back on the mainland – from the success of electric vehicle initiatives in Barbados to the widespread adoption of renewables in Aruba.
  • James is particularly proud of the ambassador network he has helped grow, now 400 people strong. From business owners to students to government officials, the Island Innovation network is fostering conversations about sustainable development in order to implement real change in island communities across the globe.

Peter Perri 0:02

From Energy Media, this is Energy Superheroes with Peter Perri. Hey, everybody, welcome today to the Energy Superheroes podcast, I’m excited to have James Ellsmoor from Island Innovation. And he specializes in sustainable development for islands globally. He really knows a lot about the island markets in particular, he’s gonna bring a lot to the table today talking about energy and islands, and how that may give us a glimpse into the future of what the rest of us can expect here on the mainland. So James, it’s great to have you today.


James Ellsmoor 0:33

Thanks for having me. Yeah, nice to be here.


Peter Perri 0:36

So I want to start off broadly, and talk about in general how you feel that islands can optimize not just their electrical grid. But beyond that. I know you cover waste management and other areas of islands including tourism, so for anyone who’s in the audience today that maybe a policymaker and an island are involved in energy on islands or sustainable development, how can you help them?


James Ellsmoor 1:05

A big part of this for us is sharing information and case studies, what we found is often islands, communities, governments stakeholders, are working in isolation, and not necessarily aware of what is happening in other places. And our network is interesting, because we have islands from the Arctic, to the Caribbean, to Patagonia, South Pacific, etc. So really, really broad. And clearly, you know, some of the small islands off the coast of Maine with a few 100 People are very different to Fiji. There’s no question of that. But particularly in the energy context or electricity context, there are some big commonalities. So things like electric vehicles were huge conversation, things like renewables and micro grids are really, they’re across the spectrum. And so we exist really just to help make these connections and share information. And that, and with a small island community, all of these things are linked. So you can’t talk about electricity without talking about tourism, or transportation or waste management. Because there’s, there’s, there’s no, they’re not big enough to be able to segregate all those things into separate silos.


Peter Perri 2:21

Now, that’s great, I appreciate that. One area that we’ve had a lot of interest in lately that sort of come about is this new ESG trend in relation to investment investments specifically, so our audience has grown a bit. And I know there’s a lot of finance people in the audience, I’m sure they’d love to know in terms of financing these types of projects, any experience you could share related to that.


James Ellsmoor 2:44

The really interesting thing in many islands is that when you look at the generation costs that as I said, maybe three, four or five times higher in, say, the Caribbean than in Florida, that would seem like a no brainer, right to move, move towards those kind of investments. The problem is scale, and particularly also the number of jurisdictions. So I lose count of how many jurisdictions there are in the Caribbean, but you have say Dominica, St. Lucia Guadalupe, or next to each other, but for you, as an investor have to deal with completely different laws, Dominique are in St. Lucia, that part of the organization of Eastern Caribbean States, they have similar origins, but it doesn’t mean that their regulations have anything in common at all. And then you go one island across to Guadeloupe while in the European Union in France. And, again, you have to deal with a whole different set of conditions. So when you’re talking about markets that may have, you know, a few 100,000, sometimes less than 100,000 people and you often just don’t have the scale. On the flip side for ESG. Investors, there’s an opportunity to have some big impact, because you can see really, you can make changes on a on a national level with relatively small projects. But the big barrier is more the political and social factors often than it is the economics.


Peter Perri 4:06

Now, that makes a ton of sense. I, of course, I’m here in Florida, and I love the Caribbean. So I’d love to touch on the Caribbean. From that standpoint, could you maybe mention an island that is very forward thinking in the Caribbean? And as sort of a case study of where maybe some of the other islands could take some lessons?


James Ellsmoor 4:27

I don’t think there’s one island that has solved everything, you know, there are different areas. So for example, if you want to talk about electric vehicles, you look at Barbados, and often because we’re talking on a smaller scale, there may be a handful of actors that have really pushed it. So there’s particularly there’s one dealership in Barbados that has really pushed up and forward thinking worked, and now they’re even looking at it on a national level at moving. I’m not sure where this project is, but there was talk of moving all of the buses to electric electrified bus. There are some similar things happening in Bermuda. In several other islands, there are big goals for renewable. So for example, Jamaica, which is one of the much larger islands with close to 4 million people, there’s a goal for 50% renewable energy by 2030, which is ambitious, but realistic. And so the, the, you see these kind of different things happening and in different places. I, I’ve talked a lot about Puerto Rico, which is a very interesting example. Also, the word there have been a lot of really exciting things that have happened and been talked about in Puerto Rico. I’m not sure where those things are currently with the grid. Because the electricity grid in Puerto Rico is a very difficult, complicated story. So the thing with the Caribbean is, every island is so different Aruba in the previous government had these really big goals for 100% renewables. Those didn’t happen, the government changed, things moved on. But I think Aruba is still around a third of the electricity generated from renewables, primarily due to a large solar farm at the airport, and large wind farm on the north coast. And in general, you it we’re seeing kind of a slow but steady trend towards more and more renewables across the region.


Peter Perri 6:25

Now, very cool. So I can’t talk about the Caribbean without mentioning Sir Richard Branson, of course, right. So he’s a big player in the British Virgin Islands, as you know, but I think I’ve seen him involved with some other sort of renewable developers in the region. I wonder if you’ve come across to him at all, or if you’ve encountered his sort of work in the Caribbean?


James Ellsmoor 6:53

Yes. Richard Branson has been a big advocate and actually owns a company BMR renewables, which is an investor and developer around the region that’s got several projects, I think, in Jamaica, Central America, some other islands. So there’s not only the kind of the NGO, nonprofit side, but he’s also actually involved in investment and doing business in the region. There have been several initiatives like the Caribbean climate accelerator, which was supported from one of the brands and organizations, I lose track of the all the different initiatives that the Virgin touches. And, of course, in the Virgin ours, I think his I believe his island is pretty much fully fully renewable as well. So yeah, we did hear a lot. There were some big events like the Caribbean renewable energy Forum, which was kind of the region’s annual conference that would take place, and he did show up to a couple of those as well. And but then there’s also a lot of Caribbean stakeholders that are really pushing this on different levels as well in different countries. The challenge is that the region is so I guess, fragmented politically, you have the independent country, the Spanish speaking countries, there’s all the different languages spoken, that there’s just so many different things happening around the region, it’s very difficult to make any generalizations because of course, the Virgin Islands and Haiti are completely different contexts. For example,


Peter Perri 8:28

Yeah, no question about that. So let’s change tracks a little bit. Of course, when I think of islands, a lot of people don’t realize the biggest island in the world is Indonesia, right? So there’s island nation of I think about 250 million people. It’s a big, one of the largest countries in the world. Have you? Have you had any experience over there Have you have you worked with any of let’s say, the larger islands like Indonesia or similar large islands.


James Ellsmoor 8:58

So we tend to focus on a group called small island developing states, which make up around just over a fifth of UN members, but only around 2% of the global population. So a lot of countries, but relatively small population, the biggest reason for that is the Caribbean, but also the South Pacific and parts of Africa and Indian Ocean as well. So those are jurisdictions are kind of very, there’s a lot of things happening in those jurisdictions. But of course, we want to think about large island countries. Well, I’m from the UK, which people forget has over 100 inhabited islands, not just the main, the Big Island, Great Britain. And so I actually, well sideline, I did my masters in Ireland studies, believe it or not, at a university in the far north of Scotland, looking at how to do development in those regions. And so part of the interest for me is, well actually, if you look at an electricity or grid system, doesn’t matter whether you’re in the north of Scotland or the Caribbean, your problems are taught about scale on and looking at, you know, looking at the conditions are similar, I guess, clearly you may be looking at a bit more solar in the Caribbean than you are in Scotland. But yeah, we’ve I mean, to go back to your original question, Indonesia, the Philippines, other countries that have islands and even India has to archipelago is that a part of part of Indian, Indian Territory, we have those included in our network. And for us what’s been really important is, as well as engaging the island states to also engage with islands that fall in this gray area between being semi sovereign. So again, Puerto Rico is a good example, the British Virgin Islands are good example, sort of semi autonomous Island regions, and then other islands that fall in as part of them. So we have the islands in Maine with a few 100 People that are part of our network as well. So there’s a whole range of different places, but wherever you are, whatever island you are in the world, electricity is a big issue.


Peter Perri 11:05

Yeah, there’s, there’s no doubt about that. Um, so I’d like to transition maybe into just some more personal questions as far as who’s had a big impact on you as a mentor in terms of influencing what caused you to go into this sort of island direction, because I’ve actually never heard of masters in Island studies, for example, I mean, I wish I would have known about it, I might have gone that track, because it sounds like a really fun thing to do. Get to see the world, but who mentored you to sort of drive you in that direction, or what influenced you.


James Ellsmoor 11:43

So my original interest was rural development and renewable energy, we can add to my core interest, I grew up on a farm in the English countryside. And so I always had this kind of that level of interest. And then I was lucky enough to spend some time in California working in the solar energy sector in the Bay Area. And one of the people there that really influenced me, as Danny Kennedy and Australian guy founded some devotee now runs at the new energy nexus, I forget the multiple organizations that he’s been involved with, and a really big advocate for renewable. So he was one of the people that really kind of gave me the initial interest in in renewables. And actually through through him. We did, I got involved with a project called solar head of states, which worked with several islands leaders. And one of the projects that we did was with President Mohamed Nasheed in the Maldives, who was also a huge, a huge influence in terms of looking at islands how islands can lead and make striking examples on this. So there’s a film called The Island president, if you haven’t seen it all about Mohamed Nasheed and the work that he did to promote the Maldives. And then another would be, well, Christine Milne, more recently, who was a former leader of the Australian Green Party, a Tasmania and senator for Tasmania, and a huge advocate not only for her island of Tasmania, but also islands across the Pacific and kind of changing Australia’s role in relationship when it comes to those islands and pushing a green agenda. And I think, you know, various different people have influenced this but what has been really interesting to me is also that through this network, we create with we connect with so many people on the doing small projects on the on the local level as well. Someone who comes to mind who who’s a real inspiration for me, on the island of Montserrat, in the Caribbean, Vita Wade, who is very much focused on her Island five or 6000 people, but changing the relationship of people that with the ocean, and as a scuba diver and looking that often many people of African origin in the Caribbean have had a difficult relationship with the ocean and many in many cases have not. We’re not even taught to swim and changing that narrative and changing that relationship as Islanders and seeing the ocean and appreciating that. I think that is really admirable. So yeah, a whole range of different people have contributed to this and different islands around the world.


Peter Perri 14:19

Those are great stories really cool. Now we don’t want to offend anybody but I must ask okay of all the islands that you’ve been to, I’m sure there’s many many beautiful ones but which one? If you if money were no object, which island would you would you put your flag in and live on?


James Ellsmoor 14:37

Oh, I won’t call her favorites of course. In this job, but one place I have spent a lot of time and I have a really deep affection for is Jamaica. Jamaica is such an incredible place with such amazing people and so much that I think often is not appreciated by people who even just go on holiday there and don’t get outside the result. The resorts. And I do think for a relatively small country if you think about the cultural impact that that island has had on the world, not just in music, but obviously music being the big one that people know. But beyond that in terms of food and other aspects as well. I think Jamaica somewhere that’s really, really special to me. And I do like, the other one would be Orkney in the north of Scotland. So slightly different temperature. Not sure I could live there in the cold. But somewhere I’ve spent a bit of time and Orkney is this home of the European marine energy center, one of the pioneers in Europe for looking at the role of renewables, and, and really implementing some innovative energy projects.


Peter Perri 15:47

Very cool. Very cool. Um, what would you say in the in the last year, have there been any books that you’ve read or anything that you’ve learned in particular, that’s, that’s been sort of standout that you’ve come across in the last year?


James Ellsmoor 16:01

Putting me on the spot here? Well, I feel like I’m always I’m always learning, we have looking at different things. One interesting book that I just finished, that’s a top of the top of my, my mind, completely forgetting the name of the name of it now, was it talking about the idea of diversity, which obviously, we hear about diversity a lot now, without actually interrogating what that means, and thinking about how we get diversity of thought, this has really been a big influence for me and my business and how we’ve built our team, how we get people with different ideas. And also, not just, it’s not just about having people represented who have a range of different backgrounds, experiences, but that’s how you actually implement those ideas and make sure that people can work together and collaborate. And the reason that that has been important for me is that our team is spread out, we were fully remote, before the pandemic. And so we have people in Africa and Europe and South America, the Caribbean, the US, and all of these different people come together. And that is a really big opportunity, because people have very different backgrounds, very different ideas. But it can also be challenging, because sometimes you are coming at things from such different ideas that that you you can miss things. So I need to look up the name of the book, because it’s just completely got out of my mind, as we’re talking about this. But for me, as a business owner, that’s been a useful way of changing my way of thinking about how we incorporate all different diverse range of ideas.


Peter Perri 17:43

No, that’s great, James, and I’ll get the name of the book for you. And we’ll put it in the notes for the podcast. So that way people can look it up. And I totally feel your pain, because I’m reading all these great books. And I and I’m the same I forget the names a lot of times, I remember the concepts, but it’s difficult sometimes to remember the names of all these different books. Well, I think I’d like to end with just something of all the projects that you’ve worked on, either whether it’s financially or in terms of impact, which project would you say that you’ve been the most proud of?


James Ellsmoor 18:19

Good question. I think so as Island innovation, we’ve built an ambassador network. So it’s not a project. It’s nothing in the ground. It’s not a physical project. But we built this network and our ambassadors particularly, we have 400 people in that in that network now who are involved in this program contributing, sharing, and we give them training to help them implement change in their communities, and to help bring about these conversations on sustainable development in all its forms. And I think that network is such an interesting mix of people from local councilors, to business owners, university students, and professors, and government officials. But that, that trying to train to build these digital bridges, for me has been really interesting. And what has happened in the last year, a lot of people have, obviously, for obvious reasons, got used to using zoom in this kind of remote collaboration. But for me, that’s kind of how we were already working. And so to be able to see, I guess, the opportunity that that’s obviously going to change as we go back to normal, whatever that means, has been has been very, very interesting. So I think yeah, it’s not a tangible project as such, but this diverse network of people that can collaborate and work together in a way that leads to real change on the ground. I think it’s been exciting.


Peter Perri 19:54

Now that’s great. Um, let’s end with if, if people listening to this want to get in touch with you, what are the kinds of people that should reach out? And how can they get a hold of you.


James Ellsmoor 20:04

So we have a big event called the Virtual Island Summit taking place in September, it’s free to attend, we had over 10,000 people register last year. And if you’re interested in any of these topics, there’ll be a whole range of things, all different angles of sustainable development, you can just join one or two sessions that are most relevant to you. So if you go to, you can sign up learn more about that. We also have a weekly newsletter, that is a summary of island energy islands sustainability and energy stories from around the world. So you can just see different things happening in different places. And you can sign up to that website as well. Or look me up or island innovation up on Twitter and send us a message to say that you listen to this.


Peter Perri 20:49

Great, James. It’s been a pleasure having you James Ellsmoor, Island Innovation. Great talk today, a lot of insights, a unique perspective that a lot of people I don’t think can fully appreciate how maybe if we look at islands, we can see the future of energy. So, James, thanks for taking the time and we look forward to seeing you again in the future.


James Ellsmoor 21:11

Thanks, Peter. Appreciate it.


Peter Perri 21:16

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