Fort William, United Kingdom – The tiny isle of Eigg, off Scotland’s north-west coast, can feel like a land outside time. Buzzards, ravens, and even golden eagles swoop over heather-filled fields. The occasional car moves ponderously along the island’s few kilometres of road. A sporadic ferry service provides the only connection with the outside world.
The 31-square-kilometre island’s hundred or so inhabitants call this languid pace of life “Eigg Time”. But the island, part of the Hebrides archipelago, is proving that a relaxed approach is no barrier to making big changes.
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Eigg is firmly on course to become the first island entirely self-sufficient in renewable power. Dotted around the picturesque island are solar panels, wind turbines and hydroelectric schemes that provide almost all of the residents’ energy needs.
“It varies from year to year depending on weather conditions, but we are getting between 85 and 90 percent of our energy from renewables,” explains Maggie Fyffe over coffee in her pleasingly chaotic bungalow that doubles as the financial office for “Eigg Electric”. Outside her window the sun shines on the Atlantic Ocean, bathing the hills of nearby Rum island in light.
“There are miles and miles of underground cable connecting every house to the grid.”
The electricity scheme, which cost around £1.6m ($2.64m) and was funded by the European Union and national bodies, was switched on in 2008. Before then, most islanders relied on noisy, polluting generators that ran on diesel that had to be shipped from the mainland at great cost.
“It’s hard to imagine what it is like to live with no electricity or limited electricity,” says Fyffe, who moved to the island in the 1970s. “If you had a generator you would only have it on for a few hours a day, so that meant you only had electricity for certain hours of the day. Now life is so much easier. I’ve got a washing machine – which I never had before.”
Eigg Electric is independent of the UK’s national grid, which means that the island is unable to sign lucrative renewables contracts with big energy companies as other rural communities in Scotland have done. Instead, electricity prices on Eigg are set slightly higher than the cost on the mainland. But at 21 pence (35 cents) per kilowatt-hour, few on the island are complaining.
“It was a condition of our funding that the price was higher,” says Fyffe. “We might have to put up the price next year by another penny. We just have to keep an eye on how the books are balancing and decide. But it is still a lot less than we were paying before.”
To ensure there is enough energy for everyone, islanders cannot use more than 5 kilowatts at a time – equivalent to running a washing machine and a kettle simultaneously. For businesses, the limit is 10 kilowatts. Islanders are used to rationing their power: So far, no one has been disconnected.
Perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, Eigg gets more than its fair share of extreme weather – good news for renewable energy.
“It gives you a completely different attitude to rain,” says Eddie Scott, part of Eigg Electric’s maintenance team, as he shows off the state-of-the-art energy storage facility in the middle of the island. Rainfall helps power hydroelectric generators set up along streams or rivers.
“That arrow there shows you that there is more power coming in than the island is consuming,” Scott explains, pointing to a bank of batteries and flashing lights.
On days that are really sunny – or, more likely, really wet or windy – Eigg Electric has a useful way for dealing with excess energy. “We have heaters in all the public spaces on the island, the two churches, the community centre, [the shop and café] down at the pier. So we put free heating into these buildings to keep the island’s costs down and to keep the infrastructure of the buildings dry,” says Scott.
Eigg has improved enormously over the last 15 years. A lot of employment has been created. We have a lot of young people coming back to live here.
Scott is not an energy specialist or a technician by profession – his background is in horticulture – but, like the rest of the six-man, part-time maintenance team, he learned how the system works by shadowing the construction company as they built the Eigg Electric scheme. “Part of their contract was that they had to teach people about installation and how it worked,” he says. “Now we can solve a lot of the problems ourselves. We have learned a lot as the years have gone by.”
One of the reasons the electricity scheme has worked so well, says Scott, is Eigg’s unique ownership structure, which gave everyone on the island a say in the decision to install the wind turbines, solar panels and hydroelectric generators.
This was not always the case. For centuries, Eigg was owned by a succession of landlords, many of whom had little or nothing to do with the island. As recently as the 1990s most residents had no legal tenure on their land, making development on the island almost impossible.
Owning the island
In 1997, after a campaign that made international headlines, the residents of Eigg raised £1.5m ($2.48m) to buy the island from its erstwhile owner, an eccentric German fire artist who went by the name of Maruma. And so Eigg became the first island in Scottish history to be bought by its inhabitants.
“Owning the island has empowered the people of Eigg,” says Fyffe, who spearheaded the community buyout of the island. “Eigg has improved enormously over the last 15 years. A lot of employment has been created. We have a lot of young people coming back to live here.”
An impressive broadband scheme has helped, as has the island’s vibrant cultural scheme – musician Johnny Lynch – better known as the Pictish Trail – is among the island’s residents.
Anyone who lives on Eigg for more than six months of the year automatically becomes a member of the residents’ committee. It was at this monthly committee that the idea for a renewable energy scheme first emerged.
“Electricity was brought up at every meeting. Where folk would want to see wind turbines, how much they would pay for a unit of electricity, we talked about all of that,” says Fyffe.
‘A great luxury’
Now the biggest problem for Eigg Electric is not renewables, but ensuring a supply of clean fuel for the diesel generators that still account for around 15 percent of the island’s energy consumption. Last year, contaminated diesel entered the supply chain, causing £12,000 ($19,800) worth of damage – a significant outlay for a small community.
For its inhabitants, continuous electricity has changed island life forever. “Electric light is a great luxury. Now I have a television, a sound system, a refrigerator, all the stuff that people take for granted,” says local postman John Cormack.
Cormack built his own hydroelectric scheme, near his wooden house overlooking a sandy beach at the Bay of Laig more than 15 years ago, but he has come to rely on Eigg Electric when bad weather knocks out his private generator.
“Before I’d have to try to stagger out there in the dark,” he says. “Now I have the luxury of flicking over to Eigg Electric and sorting it out when the weather is nicer and it is daylight. It’s great.”
Follow Peter Geoghegan on Twitter: @PeterKGeoghegan