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Green Energy on Isle of Wight: Solar Farm near Blackwater, Newport

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24 October 2012

Energy minister John Hayes gets on the internet, clicks a mouse and instantly turns off the electricity being used to charge up an electric car 15 miles away. At the same time, he can shut down a fridge and a water heater in a house three miles away. History may record his activation this week of a rudimentary smart grid of two buildings on the Isle of Wight as the start of a power revolution which its advocates hope will spread across Britain and vastly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and electricity consumption.

If the final pieces of a complex financial jigsaw can be put in place, then within 10 years the island can expect to have not only a smart grid to manage the energy used in tens of thousands of homes and businesses, but it could also be self-sufficient in renewable energy generated from waste, wind, solar and marine sources.

The £300m initiative aims to turn the islanders from some of the heaviest to some of the lowest energy users in Europe. It comes via Ecoisland, a small, not-for-profit partnership of local environmentalists seeking to reduce emissions by generating renewable energy, backed by a group of giant technology companies including IBM, Cable and Wireless and Toshiba who want an ambitious testbed to roll out and develop their technology ahead of other regions. Together they are confident that the island of 130,000 people can be turned into one of the world's largest "smart communities" - using possibly 40% less electricity and paying "significantly" lower bills.

The internet-based grid tested by Hayes at Cowes this week is central to the wider island plan of developing a variety of renewable energy systems. The island has some of the best tidal and solar power potential in Britain and there are plans for a waste to energy plant and an anaerobic digestor.

But by managing energy demand, the companies believe they can effectively build a "virtual" power plant. They estimate that they can reduce peak capacity demand to 120MW from the present 176MW and also allow the islanders to trade and profit from real and "saved" energy electricity.

"It's not the size of the plan but its diversity which makes it so ambitious. It would be a living laboratory," says Andy Standford-Clark, IBM's chief technology officer for energy and utilities who is working with the Ecoisland to develop the system. Any surplus renewable energy generated would be exported, he says, and any energy saved by householders via the smart grid, could be traded as hypothetical negative energy, or "negawatts", to be converted into cash or benefit in kind.

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