Power Sharing


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.

Comments (20)

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  1. Crubag says:

    I think Eigg is an interesting example (community working, demand management and multiple sources – though adding wave or tidal will cost as much or more than a mainland connection).

    However the article conflates electricity with energy. Electricity is actually the smallest energy use in Scotland (about 20%) the bulk of energy demand comes from heating (mostly gas at the moment) and transport (more hydrocarbons). This could come from electricity with enough investment. The forecasts for UK energy demand rely on this switch, so Eigg will be an interesting one to watch.

    Eigg will still be using hydrocarbons for transport (boats and cars) has the island been able to move to all-electric heating yet?

    1. Lucy Conway says:

      Hello Crubag – you’re right, energy is more than just electricity.

      For info, around 30% of our homes use solar thermal to heat water; the majority of the rest using wood or multi-fuel stoves and a few using kerosene. We are currently offering an incentive scheme to islanders to help with the costs of installing more solar thermal panels, thereby increasing their number and reducing the amount of fuel used for back boilers, or electricity used by immersion heaters.

      Space heating tends to be wood / multi fuel stoves and kerosene boilers. However, we have completed a wood fuel survey which shows that we have enough biomass on the island to supply all homes with enough fuel to provide our space heating and hot water needs. The biggest challenge however is to help householders to move from their current heating system (presuming its not a wood burning stove already!) to something that can make the most of that supply, efficiently. That will take some time to achieve, but its good to know if that were the case, we have both the demand and the supply side of things covered if we want to develop a wood fuel business further.

      For island heating to be all electric we would require a lot more renewable generation than we have at present. We are currently exploring a tidal device that will add to Eigg Electric’s capacity, so while the idea might be a while away yet, it’s certainly not outwith the bounds of possibility – particularly if it were something like a storage heater system that making the most of the fact that our renewables produce electricity round the clock, but demand is mostly during the day.

      We have also been focusing our efforts on improving insulation in our homes – why waste energy, of whatever kind, by letting it escape through walls, roofs, floors etc!

      Gas (LPG) is currently used only for cooking.

      Transport wise – most islanders have a car (diesel) and the ferry between us and the mainland is also fueled by hydrocarbons. Apart from lobbying (which we do) we can’t do much about the latter, but are making some slow inroads into the potential of electric vehicles by taking part in trials such as this one with Eco Travel Network. http://ecofunkytravelling.wordpress.com/etn-scottish-prize-project-2/low-energy-electric-vehicles-on-scottish-islands/

      Hope that helps and thanks for your comments

      1. Crubag says:

        Thanks for the comprehensive reply Lucy. It’d be great to see Eigg become energy self-sufficient. Is the final hurdle off-island transport? Obviously it’s not that long ago it was from renewable energy, but our chosen lifestyles no longer allow waiting until the wind is right….

        Eigg should be an inspiration (or challenge) for us mainlanders in managing our own energy consumption. It would be good to see more community-scale heating efforts too, but so much of Scotland’s housing stock is historic and unlikely to be replaced in the next few decades. It will be difficult to meet our targets without a major switch to electric heating.

      2. Me says:

        Lots of hurdles to get over before we’re totally energy self-sufficient. Perhaps we never will be, but by reducing our need for un-renewable resources we can look forward to a more affordable future while still having a life style similar to that which mainlanders enjoy.

  2. bellacaledonia says:

    Good points Crubag – thought his article just begins to touch on the technologies available to us. Of course this all needs to be – and never is – put in the context of an energy descent plan (rapid, sustained and widespread).

    I’ll let Lucy reply on the specifics of Eigg in terms of transport but on your point about heating you are absolutely right, though of course the other side to this coin is not heat OUT but retaining heat through better insulation.

    The point of the article was more about the concept of viewing energy as a shared and precious resource that can and should be community controlled.

    See also:




    1. Crubag says:

      Yes, I was speaking to a contractor recently about DECC plans to hit the UK carbon targets – he thought we were looking at 100% insulated houses (can be difficult to retrofit older buildings and can bring own issues of condensation) with all heating and electricity sourced from renewable or nuclear to meet these.

      UK energy planners are expecting a huge increase in nuclear generation between now and 2050 to meet the carbon targets, whether much investment goes to renewables or not, whether carbon capture works or not. Marine (wave and tidal) does not even feature in their plans – nor does unconventional gas – as considered too small/risky to have a significant impact.

  3. apscotland says:

    Eigg’s energy organisation is inspirational! Has anyone come across the Jean Pain compost water heating system? Where wood chips are readily available, this could be a very efficient and sustainable way to heat water and radiators/underfloor heating/ greenhouses year round. A large compost heap consisting mostly of woodchips, with a few hundred meters of water pipe running through it, was found to be able to quickly heat water to 60 deg C, and to keep doing so for up to 18 months. It also generated gas for cooking, and the end result was a very large heap of excellent compost suitable for growing food. Just google ‘jean pain’ and compost, and there are several youtube videos on this method.

  4. Nelson says:

    The entire population of Eigg would fit into four tenements on my street in Edinburgh. However, we are not allowed to fit double glazing, or burn wood, never mind sticking a turbine on the roof, in the interests of conservation. That is the same regulations that must apply to quite possibly 100,000 people in Edinburgh, alone. I don’t think I have ever seen an article about that.

    I would make the point that bypassing increasing electricity bills through community power schemes is out of the question for the vast majority, and although it is interesting reading about the likes of Eigg, it is just completely irrelevant to most people (and most people are just being ignored).

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Hi Nelson – thanks – the whole point of the Closer series was to look beyond the policy straightjacket we’re in. Many European cities have urban distric heating systems and the key idea that we shift from energy being seen as the property of a private utility to a shared public resource is not only desirable, it’s essential.

      1. nnels says:

        It looks no far than the sum of four tenements on a street in a city (the population of Eigg), and the other 92 tenements on the street are ignored.

        The four tenements probably have a smaller carbon footprint than the island of Eigg. already, but you have a complete dearth of anything to do with the majority of the population.

        I just find it pretty crap. No apologies. This is micro-ecological unimportant of a stunning degree, put forward as something that really matters. It only matters to 100 people on Eigg. 450,000 people live in Edinburgh, alone. It may sound stupid, but that really is 4,500 times more important.

        Urban district heating is governed by the winter temperature. So there is district heating in every urban settlement in Russia and probably N Sweden and Alaska, etc – you can’t get fresh water to people when it is -25 C for four months of the year without having the water pipes running beside centrally-heated pipes in a town of any size.

      2. nnels says:

        District central heating is a physical necessity in places where it is cold – you don’t get piped fresh water unless the pipe is run beside a heated pipe in places like Russia where the temperature is well below freezing for four months. I would imagine the same has to be done in urban settlements in N Sweden, or Alaska.

    2. Lucy Conway says:

      Hello Nelson – you might find this publication by ChangeWorks interesting.

      Changeworks worked in partnership with housing providers, planners and building conservation bodies to identify acceptable and effective ways of improving energy efficiency in traditionally- built listed properties in Edinburgh’s Old Town, including tenements http://www.changeworks.org.uk/uploads/83096-EnergyHeritage_online1.pdf

      1. nnels says:

        Thanks for your link. ‘Changeworks’ serves as an explanation why I am not allowed to fit double glazing to my house after half the street have already done so prior to the conservation area changes. Fitting double glazing would be the most dramatic step towards energy-loss I could make, but it is not allowed due to the required beautification of Edinburgh.

        For Bella, I would note that in Russia, and probably all the other places where you get really central central heating, you get triple glazing (1.5″ x 1.5″ x 1.5″).

        I have Edinburgh Council prescribed Victorian single glazing. They don’t allow anything else that would prevent heat-loss.

  5. nnels says:

    I just think that this stuff about 100 people having a wind turbine and solar panels is a bit silly, when 100,000 people can’t even have double glazing.

    1. Lucy Conway says:

      Can’t disagree with you that 100,000 should have double glazing, more insulation etc!!

      Not sure that our community having electricity, mostly from renewable sources, is a silly or sensible comparison.

      The main point, as Bella pointed out, is asking whether your community (like ours) should/could be able to effect change to the way electricity and energy is made & distributed. We had to build ourselves an electricity company, you have to tackle planning regulations.

  6. Hello there – I was corresponding with Lucy on Eigg about air-source heat pumps, and she suggested that I place on this site the link to my own experience, where we have dramatically cut our energy costs (they have been negative for each of the past 6 months with solar FIT) and carbon footprints (I think it will be by about 2/3 once the full year is up) by using 4 kW of solar voltaic panels (cost £5k installed) and a small air-source heat pump (cost £2k installed). I have fully documented this at the following link. I suggest that on that page you click the PDF for the 2-page article in the current edition of Reforesting Scotland first (if interested). That has attached to it 10 pages of detailed technical notes, including discounted cash flow financial appraisals and a policy proposal to replace domestic FITs with what I call the NUB – the Net Usage Basis – to stop cross-subsidy from have-nots to haves but still stimulate solar panels. I’ve also got all my spreadsheets with data based on actual meter readings. The bottom line is that since the heat pump was added with the panels in April, I’ve had negative energy costs (gas and electric) of £241 to the end of Sept, of which £467 was solar FIT, so even without the FIT (feed in tariff) my energy for that 6 month period – both of us working from home heating 3 rooms to 20 degrees – our energy costs for the 6 months would have been only £226 – and April and May were both below average temps here.

    Also …. on SSE … some of you will have seen this today:


    I have posted a comment as follows, and since I put it there ago the site has been invaded by those complaining about “green anarchists” etc, meriting my comment 14 thumbs down against 3 thumbs up (I’m not begging for thumbs up – I just think it’s very telling). Here’s what I wrote to incur such wrath:

    I cannot believe that Mr Phillips-Davies can be so irresponsible as to say: “maybe it is time to retreat from decarbonisation and focus more on the cost of living.” Has he not read the latest IPCC report of the UN on climate change? Here close on a thousand of the world’s leading climate change scientists conclude: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia…. It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

    The debate stirred up by the pseudo-scientific “climate change skeptics” is over. Taxing energy, and shifting the burden away from other forms of taxation, is the most effective way to contain our collective over-consumption. The only question is how to protect those who already live within their carbon emission quotas because they are poor. My view is that energy pricing should be staggered, as a progressive tax, so the more a household uses the more it pays, and proceeds piled in partly to insulating old housing.

    At a personal level, I have radically cut my domestic carbon footprint and my energy costs this year by installing solar panels in tandem with a small air source heat pump. Even in just bright cloud our house gets heated during the day for free. Full data and an article from the current edition of the magazine Reforesting Scotland is on my website (google my name). We need energy leadership in Scotland that helps people to live with low bills and low carbon footprints and energy tax on profligacy is essential to this. The only people who will benefit from Mr Phillips-Davies appeal to the hip pocket will be his shareholders. I know somebody who bought a stash of SSE shares some months ago and was trumpeting how high their dividend payments were. If Mr Phillips-Davies carries on in this vein, then people like me will be urging disinvestment.

    Alastair McIntosh (author of Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition)

  7. bellacaledonia says:

    Deeply depressing Alastair. This is instructive: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-24494893

    1. Thank you Bella, I’d missed that one. Astonishing. Future generations will look back and say “first they lost their self control, then they lost their reason.” That comment that I posted on the Scotsman this morning has attracted 23 Dislikes, and several snide comments. The characteristic of being snide, so common amongst the climate change deniers and also a certain type of religious fundamentalist is interesting me. I’ve been thinking about it in relation to a disturbing section in this month’s edn of Peace News. It has asked a number of people to reflect on “activism and unhappiness”, and I was struck that several seemed to be saying that they use their activism as a way of venting their unhappiness because, and I quote one from memory, “If you can be angry, it stops you from feeling unhappy.” It’s something that’s long bothered me in the activist field because it poisons the work, and I think this is what we’re seeing in a lot of armchair internet negative-activism especially with climate change, but also in the Daily Mail/Express sort of stuff about the poor. I don’t have answers. Just observing. There’s something, I suspect, about this age of narcissism that has unhappiness and negativity very much as its shadow side. That’ll earn me a few more Dislikes!

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