Sharon Malone, Marketing and Green Manager of the Falls Hotel in Ennistymon, tells Bridget Ginnity how her work has inspired her personally. It is one of only two carbon neutral hotels in Clare, the other being Hotel Doolin
My interest in the environment started when I was about 13, when my dad bought me a book called “50 Things Kids Can Do To Save The Earth” – I’d say he rued the day.
I drove the family demented with all the ideas I got from it, like when I had them all turn off all the taps to check if we had a leaky house. There was a chapter on vegetarianism and I gave up eating meat.
My parents humored me completely though. I am the oldest of six and concern for the environment filtered down – my brother even stopped throwing tyres on Halloween bonfires!
I went on to study marketing and was delighted to get the opportunity to work on environmental projects when I joined the Falls Hotel in Ennistymon in 2017.
The power of water
Once you enter the driveway to the Falls Hotel, you have zero carbon footprint for your entire stay. Some guests get a real kick out of knowing that.
Back in 2016, our annual carbon emissions were about 700 tonnes. An average household might be 11 tonnes, so 700 tonnes was massive.
The hotel owners, the McCarthy family, were very conscious of trying to do something to reduce it, especially being based in an area of such natural beauty.
They looked to the river to see if that could be a source of energy for the hotel. The previous owners had installed a small hydroelectric turbine of 30kWh but that was for a much smaller hotel, with only 20 rooms.
Would it work for the 140 bed hotel? It was challenging because nobody else had done this in Ireland at the time, and I don’t think they have since either.
It took about two years to install the turbine on the riverbed and to build the turbine house. The capacity is 220kWh, so it can generate up to 220 units of electricity in an hour. A lot of research went into it, we had good consultants and good support.
It went live just before Christmas 2018. We were nervous whether the river could provide enough energy to light and heat the place, and would it switch over to the grid seamlessly when the river is low. We had a hotel full of guests for Christmas so it was nerve racking, but it just worked like magic.
At the moment it’s running 100% off the power of the river. We have to supplement it from the grid when the river is low and on average it is about 80% hydro powered. I still get a kick out of that.
It is just wonderful when you come up the steps of the hotel and you see the river that is powering the hotel. We could tell straight away by the first electricity bill that our energy use just dropped hugely. By the end of 2019 our carbon emissions had reduced by 550 tons.
In the original business plan we expected a return on investment period of about 20 years. Since last year, we have been able to sell excess energy back into the grid and that is a game changer, bringing the return on investment down to about 12 years. And it is green energy we are selling.
Waste not want not
The success of the hydro turbine encouraged us to do more and waste was a big issue. We reduced our annual waste from about 160 tons to less than 60 tons, largely by being more mindful.
We eliminated single use plastics from the hotel. We took all the single use shampoos and conditioners and soaps out of the bedrooms and we provide recycling bins for guests.
In hospitality, the food waste can be high. Maybe it’s an Irish thing, but you want to fill somebody’s plate to make sure they have enough food.
Over a three-day period, we documented the waste that was coming back in to the kitchen on plates and found we were giving too much of things like potato and toast.
The kitchen team reduced the amount they were serving and we encourage people to ask for more instead.
We had lovely large plates in our carvery, but there’s a tendency to fill a large plate so we changed them to regular dinner plates and this helped to reduce our waste.
We use some of our food waste as compost for our own gardens here and the rest of it is composted at the Clean Ireland facility.
Water to water
We wanted to bring our carbon emissions down further and one of our challenges was our leisure centre.
The heating of that building was with natural gas, not from our hydro electricity. We changed to a bio LPG fuel at the start of 2021, which is a renewable source of fuel.
Biofuel is imported into Ireland which isn’t ideal. Our goal is to change our heating system in the leisure centre to a water-to-water heat exchange system.
It’s a similar concept to the air to water pump, but we’ll be using the excess electricity generated by the hydro turbine to power it. Then we’d be 100% hydro-powered and no longer reliant on imported biofuel.
Down to zero
Changing to biofuel brought our emissions right down so at the end of last year our carbon emissions were just over 50 tons. That is primarily from our laundry. Although we outsource it, we still count the transport and laundry emissions as ours.
We have a tree planting policy in place to offset those emissions, planting about 500 trees a year.
We also ask suppliers for their environmental policy and put a little bit of pressure on them to make a change. It’s often simply asking the question, “Why are we doing this?”
For example, our brochures used to come in a box, wrapped in plastic bundles. We told our printers we don’t need them wrapped in plastic, so they stopped. That was an easy change and a saving for them.
Organisations like Failte Ireland and booking.com have done surveys where 80% of people have said that they would want to holiday more sustainably. But we realise it is a very easy box to tick and take the results with a pinch of salt.
One of my colleagues here is doing a more in-depth survey on sustainable tourism and I’m looking forward to seeing the results.
We don’t charge more for being a sustainable hotel. We aim to be the same price as another hotel of a similar size and quality.
It’d be nice to think that a guest would choose to stay in the sustainable option, all other things being equal. That would encourage other businesses to change.
The umbrella organisation for us is the Burren Ecotourism Network. It’s a great support network with about 70 members. We share information and tips for anything related to operating sustainably.
The network requires us to adhere to a Code of Practice relating to environmental policies on areas such as waste, water and energy, and buying local. It’s assessed independently every two years.
People look for substance behind environmental claims, they are tuned in to greenwashing. Having the Ecotourism certification helps because it means we’re being audited – we won’t get away with making a statement on doing something if we’re not actually doing it.
The bigger picture
We’ve seen in the last few months that we can’t take our energy and food supply for granted. Ireland is such a small country with a population of 5.5 million, it would be a wonderful thing if we were more independent from an energy and food point of view.
Energy from fossil fuels comes at a cost. We can’t keep using it and think that it will be there forever.
I’d love if there was a more cohesive approach in Ireland to renewable energy, with more wind farms and solar farms. Maybe some other waterways are also suitable for hydro-electricity.
Recently I was walking around Mount Callan. The turbines are a symbol of clean energy to me now and I like to think about the electricity they are providing to the grid.
I do understand people objecting to them being on their doorstep but it would be lovely if we could both minimise the impact and look at the bigger picture.
If electricity from the grid is renewable, you don’t have to ask householders to do so much, like putting in their own solar panels or heat pumps. It’s very expensive to do that and not every household can – it’s a big ask.
I genuinely feel that it can be done but it needs to be happening right now. The obstacles that are there are obstacles that we put up ourselves.
Farming is so important in Ireland. The farming approach to get things done faster and cheaper doesn’t go hand in hand with lower carbon emissions and protecting our biodiversity.
The Burrenbeo approach is an example of how it can still be done.
I don’t eat meat but I love the idea of the winterage and that the cattle are out in the open here all year round and that their beef is so sustainable.
Farmers are doing well from it and it’s working.
It’s so beautiful now at this time of year. I love living around here. When I see the bluebells and the hawthorn and when I hear the cuckoo, it steadies me.
There was a great local project recently to extend the Glen walk by EDCO (the Ennistymon District Community Organisation) that is right on our doorstep. We send guests on the walk all the time, it’s just so nice and so relaxing.
During lockdown when I was off work, I really made a point of sitting outside or going for a walk with my children and the dogs.
And we have our own vegetable garden that we started in 2020 when we were at home – it’s our lockdown garden that we have continued.
I said we wouldn’t get back to rushing around but we did, that’s the way life is. I still try to take time out though and get a bit of grounding from being in nature.
Making that Change
There’s been quite a lot of negativity to tips that were given recently to cut down on energy, even though they’re common sense and valid suggestions.
I’m an eighties child and we were terrified to leave the immersion on but then we became affluent. I think we began to take it for granted that we could have whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted.
When you think about it, it’s only 20 or 30 years that all this consumption has exploded. We expect we’ll always have it so why should we change? But that isn’t sustainable in any way, shape or form.
Young people know they have a powerful voice. My young ones at home are very aware – even if they roll their eyes when I start on about it.
One thing that struck a chord with them is the effect of deforestation for palm oil farming on the orangutan, so they avoid eating things with palm oil in it. Business will respond to market pressures.
If you think about the world as a whole and about trying to save the planet it would drive you crazy. But we can we focus on ourselves and what we can do locally.
I have been influenced a lot by the work we do here in the hotel. It would be fantastic if we all at home could all keep an eye in our water, waste and our own energy usages and be more sustainable at a smaller scale.
We’re all just living our lives, simply getting on with it, but I think if we all did one thing to reduce our carbon emissions, they all add up and collectively we can make more of an impact.
People are different and it’s about finding something that comes relatively easy to you and making that change. Every little helps.