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Eigg wind

On the day Scottish Southern Energy hikes gas and electricity bills by up to 10% for millions of households Bella explores a different path. The stranglehold of private utilities means only one thing, more fuel poverty whilst Alistair Philips-Davies CEO of SSE is paid £545,000 a year with an annual bonus of £154,00. The reality is privatised energy brings only fuel poverty and obscene profits for vast, distant corporations. But successful projects in Scotland and Denmark highlight how small-scale, locally owned renewable energy can save money, cut pollution and enhance democracy. In an extract from Closer, Lucy Conway reports …

ENERGY will be essential to the future of Scotland, whether independence is secured or not. Much of the debate has focused on how the golden geese of oil and renewables might shape the economy. But if an alternative political future is possible, perhaps it’s time to look at reshaping the finance of fuel?  What would Scotland look like if, instead of big business, politicians or economists being at the centre of energy production and distribution, it was the people who live here and use it?

The community-owned Isle of Eigg is not connected to the mainland electricity grid. Nowadays, Eigg’s 48 homes and 22 businesses run on electricity from solar, wind and water power generated by the island’s own electricity company Eigg Electric. But it wasn’t always like this. Before Eigg Electric was switched on just five years ago, each household had to make its own electricity. For most homes this meant a generator. Diesel to run generators would be delivered in bulk by ferry, decanted into oil drums, transported across the island to be decanted again into still smaller vessels to make the process of filling the generator easier. At around 65p per unit, the luxury of electricity on demand was hard, dirty, smelly and expensive. Some homes had a battery system, charged by generator and used until it ran out, heralding the generator’s relentless thud, thud, thud some twelve to 48 hours later. A small number of homes had micro wind or hydro systems, but their output and efficiency were dependent on the right kind of weather. Whichever method was used, electricity on Eigg was generally limited and unreliable.

Eigg solar

Eigg solar

Today, 85 to 90% of Eigg’s electricity is from renewable sources, the rest coming from a back-up diesel generator for maintenance periods or when demand is more than renewables can meet. Now islanders can be sure of clean green, quiet, cheap electricity on tap, 24/7. While at 21p per unit Eigg Electric is about 30% higher than the mainland, it is a fraction of what it cost previously.

Eigg Electric has won awards for its innovation – it was the first time in the world three renewables and diesel back up had been brought together in one system. The Eigg community has also been recognised for its energy-saving and carbon reduction projects. But perhaps the most radical achievement is not how Eigg Electric works technically, but how it works socially or culturally.

24-hour power had been a priority for the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust since the community buyout in 1997. Various options were considered, including laying a cable from the mainland, dismissed on cost grounds (£4-5m). In 2004 a design for what became Eigg Electric was agreed. Wind, rain, and sun would provide energy whatever the weather, but a vital part of the design process was consultation with the community. Whatever the size of the system, the amount of energy it could generate would always be finite. Just as on the mainland, unless a scheme was built capable of generating many times more than the average demand, if everyone needed a lot of power simultaneously, there might not be enough. A simple system to manage demand was needed.

One way to do this might have been by price; customers would pay a low price per unit up to a certain amount, and thereafter pay more. This scheme was rejected. If you could afford it, or when the occasion was more important than thrift (e.g. cold weather or Christmas), demand would quickly outstrip supply. Instead, a proposal to cap the amount of power people could use at any one time to five kilowatts (kW) for homes and ten kW for business was voted for by 100% of residents. This choice shaped the final design of the system and secured its success. It provides equal access to electricity for all and ensures there is always enough for everyone. The five/ten kW cap was determined by the size of system the community could afford to build and the estimated demand of consumers, based on the existing and predicted infrastructure.

While the population and the number of connections have risen since 2008, demand for electricity has not grown significantly. Eigg residents are very energy aware. An energy monitor and everyone knowing how much electricity appliances use means living within the five or ten kW limit is very easy. As well as the cap, a traffic light system helps manage demand further. On dull, windless days with no rain, an email is circulated and a red light comes on at the community hub asking people to reduce their electricity consumption if they can. This conserves energy and reduces demand by as much as twenty per cent. The back up generator comes on less frequently, saving cost and carbon emissions.

Eigg Electric works because it was well designed and managed professionally. But beyond the technical expertise, the real success of the system is how the island works together as a community: understanding the constraints and recognising that if everyone uses the resource fairly and equally, there will always be enough. Part of that understanding comes from living in a small place, where taking care of those around you is part of daily life. It’s also about knowing how the electricity is made, that when the wind blows or the sun shines, the community owned scheme is producing electricity for everyone to share.

Over the five years since it began, the average renewable contribution to the system is 85%. With the recent addition of a further 40 kW of solar photovoltaic it is expected to rise to 90% or more.  Eigg Electric and the Eigg community continue to innovate, looking to add a small tidal or wave generator to reduce the need of diesel to an almost negligible amount.

On another island, Samsø in Denmark, local communities own shares in the island’s eleven land-based wind turbines which generate one million watts of electricity. An additional ten offshore wind turbines contribute a further 2.3 million watts into the system. Together they provide more than enough power for Samsø 4,000 people. Excess power is sold to the mainland, which in turn provides electricity to Samsø if wind generation is low. 70% of Samsø‘s heating is provided by four renewably-powered district heating plants. Outwith that network, many households have replaced or supplemented oil heating with solar, ground source heat pumps and wood pellet boilers.

It would be naive to say that either island solution could be simply transferred to provide a Scotland-wide answer. But each provides enticing ways to explore a new or different way to manage and exploit Scotland’s energy resources. Both enable energy’s end users to understand, be connected and have control over how energy is made and shared. By using renewables in a collective way, they can shield their communities from the vagaries of international fossil fuel prices. On Eigg, energy production and distribution is completely localised and very small scale. While Samso is bigger and includes larger scale industry, it is still small by comparison to Scotland. However, despite many questions to be addressed around the scale of demand and the infrastructure needed to meet it, the thinking behind both examples could provide important lessons for how Scotland’s energy future might be managed.

Imagine if everyone in Scotland knew how much power was being generated at any one time. That they knew how much electricity they needed, what they were using and where it had come from. That energy was thought of as something we owned collectively rather than corporately, a resource to be conserved and shared responsibly between everyone.

The people of Eigg and Samsø had electricity in the past, but they found a new, better way of providing affordable energy to their communities using renewable technology and a collaborative approach. Both communities have created jobs and built expertise, establishing themselves as centres of innovation and visited by people from all over the world looking for new ways to develop an alternative energy infrastructure and methodology.

Scotland has the means of providing power to its citizens using both renewable and non-renewable resources. Arguably the latter may run out one day, or at the very least be increasingly too expensive to access. With careful planning, demand management and a greater sense of trust and stewardship of resources, energy – however generated – can be fairly and equitably distributed amongst us all.