When Giorgios Giannoulis, or George as his guests call him, thinks about the future of Astypalea, he sees a pretty picture: He sits on his balcony, looks at the sunset and enjoys the peace and quiet. There isn’t an engine within earshot. The 52-year-old has spent half his life on the small island in the Aegean. He runs a campsite and the local fire brigade. Now Astypalea is becoming a future lab for sustainable mobility and energy supply: The plan is for quiet electric cars to gradually replace conventional cars and two-wheelers. Locally generated green electricity will replace diesel generators. “It’s great that we are shaping the future. But it’s also important to me that our island stays the same,” said Giannoulis.
With the launch of the first electric cars, the joint project of the Volkswagen Group and the Greek government recently made important progress. In addition to the first fully electric police car in Greece being in operation on Astypalea, sales of electric models to private customers starts at the end of June. Electric mobility is then set to become more visible gradually in the coming months.
“Our guests like alternative travel. Environmental protection is close to their heart. Which is why they will open to switching to e-mobility.”
George Giannoulis believes that the transformation is a good fit for his camping business. After being forced to close due to coronavirus, he will open his campsite again in July. “Our guests like alternative travel. Environmental protection is close to their heart. Which is why they will open to switching to e-mobility,” says Giannoulis. And he will be swapping his conventional car for an electric car to do his shopping, visit his parents and take occasional trips to mainland Greece. “I’m excited to see how well the electric car fits into my everyday life. I’ll know more in a few months,” he said.
The 52-year-old doesn’t conceal the fact that he also thinks there may be some risks: “People come to enjoy our beautiful island. We can’t endanger that by letting wind turbines and solar panels dominate the landscape.” George has a demand: Volkswagen and the Greek government need to make sure that the island benefits from the transition in the long term. “I expect them to respect the character and face of Astypalea,” he stressed. As head of the rescue service and the voluntary fire brigade he would also like practical help with training his 20 volunteers to respond to future accidents with electric cars.
The people on Astypalea are concerned by the same issues as the rest of the world: So, the transformation of the island is suited to being a one-off testing lab: The opportunities and challenges here can be observed as if in time lapse. Scientists will be involved in the whole project. Experts from the University of Strathclyde (Scotland) and the University of the Aegean (Greece) will gather and evaluate the feedback received from residents. Their research will contribute to systematically incorporating the perspective of the island community, and thereby be crucial to the success of the project. The results the scientists collect will also provide other regions with valuable tips and be made available to the public (see interview).
The island of Astypalea and its residents could benefit significantly from a self-sufficient, sustainable energy supply – including financially. Astypalea currently sources diesel, petrol and gas from the mainland. Just like most food and other everyday essentials, it has to be transported to the island by ship at great cost. The crossing from the central Greek harbour in Piraeus takes ten hours. That makes living on the island expensive. There is one plus though: Astypalea is one of just a few islands of this size to have their own water supply. There are underground sources and a reservoir located in the mountains above the main village of Chora.
However, the Astypaleans pay 25 percent more on average for fuel than people on the mainland. This also applies to the power supply, diesel generators currently cover the local energy demand. An independent power supply would mean great savings here.
Public car sharing and a new local transport system should also reduce the need for privately owned cars. Greece’s main Volkswagen importer, Kosmocar, will supply Astypalea with electric cars suitable for car sharing. They are earmarked for the fleets of local car rental companies. Together with Kosmocar, these companies will operate car sharing, which will be aimed at both tourists and locals alike. The cars will be connected online in a fleet management system. So, according to a Kosmocar representative, this will prevent visitors to the island from misjudging a route and getting stuck in a remote mountainous region, for example.
A Shuttle-on-Demand offering is planned for local public transport. Currently, only one private bus company operates on Astypalea – and mainly in the summer months when lots of visitors mean there is enough demand. There are currently no options out of season. That is set to change soon, when the community, with the involvement of the private transport companies, will offer a year-round local transport system – fully electric, of course.
“We are giving the island community of Astypalea a voice”
Dr. Francesco Sindico is the founder and co-director of the Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance. He lectures in international environmental law at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland. In collaboration with the University of the Aegean, the Scottish researchers are following development on Astypalea.
What is the aim of your study?
We want to systematically investigate what the residents of Astypalea know about the Volkswagen Group and Greek government project on their island, and what they think about it. Countless examples show that even well-meaning initiatives can only be successful if they incorporate the desires and concerns of the people affected. The residents need to feel that the changes improve everyday life – otherwise they won’t go along with the transition. Our role is to give the island community of Astypalea a voice and return our findings to the initiators.
When will the initial results be available?
The first survey via questionnaire will be conducted in the next few weeks. This will be followed by further interviews, so we expect to be able to present an initial report in late summer. We will repeat the survey each year for the next three years, so that we can visualise changes in opinion.
“Astypalea has the opportunity to become a role model for sustainable mobility and energy supply in the post-fossil era.“
What draws you to the project?
I have been looking at the role that islands can play as pioneers of technological, economic and ecological change for some time now. Astypalea has the opportunity to become a role model for sustainable mobility and energy supply in the post-fossil era. The more the project progresses, the more we will ask which lessons can be transferred to other islands, regions or cities. It’s a very exciting task.