The generators lie silent on the Isle of Eigg. The noise has been a permanent feature of island life and a vital sign for the 70 people for whom Eigg is home that there would be light and power. But not any more.
In February 2007 this small community between Skye and the Ardnamurchan peninsula switched on to twenty four hour power from a £1.6m renewable energy system.
That moment was the climax of a dream which began a decade ago following a community buy-out of the island. More remarkable still is that such a tiny island is demonstrating something to a world gripped by the challenges of climate change and how we might live in such uncertain times.
The system will generate more than 95% of the islands annual electricity demand through a combination of hydro electric, wind power and solar energy – the first time such a combination of technologies has been successfully integrated.
Although the official switch-on took place on 1st February 2007, sweeping the island into a flurry of media interest, the system is actually still undergoing commissioning and is expected to be handed over fully to Eigg Electric Ltd, the company set up to run the project, in mid April 2007.
Yet already the system is making a huge difference to the people of Eigg. “We’re now paying less for our electric than we were for diesel generators,” says John Booth, director of Eigg Electric.
“To avoid the possibility of overload we took the decision to cap supplies to 5kW for domestic properties and 100kW for the school and businesses.
“The driver for this whole project has always been 24 hours electricity. Yet we also see it as something of a model for other isolated communities not just in Britain but in northern Europe.
“The system also has the capacity for growth and will sustain up to a 50% increase in population and was originally designed with encouraging people to move to the island in mind.”
The Eigg project has been managed by Synergie Scotland Ltd since August 2005.Director Ian MacGillivray describes the project as ‘unique and technically challenging’ and praises the Eigg community for its vision and determination.
There were a number of hurdles to be overcome – Eigg’s remote location, deciding on the right energy balance, the ground conditions risk, getting the full backing from all Eigg’s residents and getting the right team.
The system uses a mix of technologies. The hydro electricity comes from 100kW scheme at Laig and two smaller 6kW schemes at Kildonan and the pier.
The wind power is generated from a 24kW wind farm comprising four 6kW Proven turbines at Grulin while the solar energy comes from a 10kW photovoltic array at the Glebe, next to the system’s control centre.
To ensure the island has constant power, a battery storage system has been designed which compensates for short periods of up to 24 hours where energy from renewable sources is not available.
The main design and some enabling works took place during 2006 and early 2007 before the main design and build contract was awarded to Scottish Hydro Contracting in April 2007.
There have been a number of keys to the project's success – not least the islanders’ own resilience – but Ian MacGillivray also singles out the management of the project.
“The scheme was managed in such a way that we had a single point of contact in John Booth. He was able to make decisions on behalf of the board of Eigg Electric. This was hugely important because it kept things moving. Delays would have meant a rise in costs and our aim was to ensure getting the maximum energy out of the system while remaining on budget,” he says.
The system’s commissioning phase has, not surprisingly, revealed a couple of challenges still to be overcome. Not least of these is what do to with the surplus energy from the wind turbines – one solution is to provide local dump loads at the community centre.
The project will also supply part-time employment for three local people who are being trained to service, maintain and repair the systems to ensure these skills can be met by the islanders themselves.
Funding for the Eigg project came from both within and outside the island. The Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust raised £45,000 and the islanders brought in a further £30,000.Funding also came from the European Regional Development Fund, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Big Lottery Fund, the Scottish Government, Highland Council and Highlands and Islands Community Energy Company.