The small Aegean island of Astypalea has set out on a course to convert from diesel to electric in road traffic and wind and solar power generation. It’s a joint project between the Greek government and the German Volkswagen Group.

Astypalea (Αστυπάλαια), comprising about 100 square kilometres and located about 350km from Athens, is one of the 15 larger plus 150 smaller Greek islands of the Dodecanese group in the southeastern Aegean Sea. A 2011 census puts its population at 1,334 and its past influx of tourists at some 70,000 a year. The plan is to replace around 1,500 vehicles equipped with combustion engines with 1,000 electric cars.

Four diesel generators now produce the energy supply. Within two years these will be deactivated and replaced with wind and solar generation.

The deputy foreign minister of Greece, Konstantinos Fragogiannis, said “Astypalea can become an ecological model for many islands”. Photo: Supplied.

The Greek Deputy Foreign Minister, Konstantinos Fragogiannis, said in an interview: “Through our cooperation we want to show how an international business enterprise, a local community and a European state can work together for the benefit of the people.”

The overall objective is to make Astypalea a model for climate-friendly mobility. So why was this island chosen?

“A relatively modest island offers two important advantages. Firstly, we can completely change the energy system and mobility offers. Second: We can observe how the project changes the community. We ruled out large islands like Crete or Rhodes for cost reasons. Very small islands with a few hundred people are also out of the question because the results would not be representative. Astypalea with 1,300 inhabitants has the appropriate scale. The road network is sufficient to test e-vehicles and mobility services. Another important argument was the support among the inhabitants.”

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Mr Fragogiannis explained Astypalea’s role in Greece’s ambitious climate targets: “Greece is bowing out of coal by 2028. The majority of power plants will be decommissioned as early as 2023. Instead, the government is promoting wind turbines, solar plants and other climate-friendly technologies. The cooperation with Volkswagen Group is a beacon in this respect. Astypalea can become an ecological model for many islands – worldwide.”

By 2023, a new solar park will provide about 3 megawatts of green energy, covering 100 percent of the energy needed to charge the electric vehicles and more than 50 percent of the island’s overall energy demand.

By 2026, the new energy system will be further expanded to more than 80 percent of the total energy demand. In addition, a battery storage system will help to balance the grid and make full use of the solar park. As a result, the CO2 emissions of the island’s energy system will be significantly reduced while energy costs could fall by at least 25 percent.

Astypalea police will be driving VW’s E-SUV ID.4. It will be the first electric car to be used by Greek police. Photo: Supplied.

The Prime Minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitstotakis attended the official launch of the transformation, where the CEO of German car giant VW, Herbert Diess,  handed over of eight electric-powered VW ID.4 cars for use by the island’s police. The island’s harbour police, the airport authority and administration are also to go electric.

The police also received two SEAT MÓ e-scooters. SEAT is a VW subsidiary.

These are the first electric vehicles on Astypalea, many others are to follow. Sales to private and business customers are to begin at the end of this month.

Next in planning are a fully electric car-sharing system and a ride-sharing service. These will radically modernise public transport, replacing the old bus service which did not cover the whole island.

Experts of the University of Strathclyde, Scotland, and the Lesvos-based University of the Aegean will carry out regular surveys to obtain feedback from the islanders on the changes. The study will help to provide greater understanding of the transformation process.

The politicians hope the project will drive a tourism boom on the island once as it becomes widely known that it is emission free.

Ideally, its new green image could spread to the rest of the country. The Greek government has not failed to notice that public opinion is firmly shifting away from mass tourism and is showing a greater awareness of the ecological risks it poses.

Some Astypaleans are sceptical. There is concern that wind turbines could disfigure the island, although government representatives have promised to erect just two on the island.

“If wind turbines are really going to be installed, it will ruin the island’s beauty,“ an islander told a German magazine, “… unless they’re put in an out-of-the-way place.”

A shopkeeper said that he supported climate protection but feared that the island would lose its unique character.

Others voiced doubt that the prime minister from Athens and the powerful automobile boss from Germany would actually keep their promises.

“We’ve heard a lot of big talk in Greece,” said the operators of an island ice-cream parlour, who have lived on the island for 11 years. “Maybe it’s different this time. But, so far, we haven’t seen much more than charging stations and a few cars.”

The Greek government has realized that it needs to launch a charm offensive. Persuading the islanders about the promised green turnaround would be “the next big challenge,” Mr Mitsotakis said in the presence of reporters. He intended to prove to them “that they need these changes”.

A group of German tourists who also followed the proceedings appeared a bit flabbergasted. “Why does VW choose a Greek island and not a German one?” one of them asked.

Another saw his holiday idyll endangered. He liked the idea of no emissions, “but I fear it will attract mass tourism here.”

An electric vehicle charging column has been set up at the island’s airport terminal. Photo: Supplied.