Eigg, what’s next? 2/2

The Scottish Island Eigg, with around 100 inhabitants, for some 10 years now runs its own independent electricity network, and functions fine. (see previous article). In part 2: what now?

With such a joint electricity network , which works fine (with all its limitations), you would think that that more things would be arranged in common, such as a laundry, instead of everyone having their own washing machine. That of course would save on energy and reduce the network load. In many newly established residential communities in Europe that is what has happened. But it works the other way around here on Eigg: people never had a washing machine … So a washing machine at home was a big improvement! Incidentally, a launderette is lately now and then discussed in the monthly resident’s meeting. So who knows. And of course in Eigg there is also the occasional request to be allowed to have a higher power connection. But so far the community has been able to maintain the 5 kW max. Since of course there is also hardly any money to expand the grid. Although the wish to expand the grid is growing, now that there are also the first electric cars on the island. Which of course require electricity …

On one of my discovery tours around the island, ( around 5 by 9 km) I meet the owner of Glebe cottage. He is very actively involved with energy around his house. He has his own small hydroelectric power station, which even dates back to before the island system. A small stream runs past his house, and with a simple pipe and some dynamos he generates electricity, up to 400 watts. He installed it at the time because he was faced with a broken diesel generator, and came to the conclusion that things could be done differently. Recently he also installed solar panels on his house and installed a few batteries. He is now busy optimizing his house system. In principle, he produces more than he needs, including loading his recently purchased electric car (although its sheer impossible to empty the battery on the island itself, even if you tried …). Only for the heavier tasks, such as the washing machine, he sometimes switches to the island system. Switching was normal a few years ago, but currently hardly anymore.

All this by the way does not make it an all-electric island: Electric cooking is out of the question, and heating also runs mainly on kerosene, gas or wood … except for part of the wood all imported. Although Glebe cottage also has solar collectors for hot water in particular. He could heat the house entirely on local wood as well, but that is a lot of (hand) work, as he knows from experience ….

Since the existing customers like Glebe cottage, do more themselves, and this way relieve the system, is one of the reasons that the system continues to work, and allows for occasionally new connections. Which again lead to the conclusions that like in Eigg, its easier to build a system ground up and expand it, as to make a complete shift from a unlimited energy society , with all spill-overs and luxury, to a system completely based on renewable sources.

The other day at the port I meet Colin Carr, one of the people active in the energy trust, and get to talk to him. Because my first introduction to Eigg was through students who made a housing design for the island from local materials, I asked about the plans in that area. That is, energy is 1 thing, but what about materials, could those be sourced from the island itself? Most materials, he says, are imported. Although they have just started this year, utilizing their timber supply. Long time ago a piece of forest has been planted, and now it appears to be interesting to harvest. They have designated 1/3 of that dorest as a harvesting option, delivered as round logs to a sawmill on the mainland. This in turn provides some money for the islands cash. A part of the harvest is reserved for local wood-burning stoves, and there is also a small nursery to replenish the tree stock.

But, I ask, are there any houses built on the island from that local wood or other material available on the island? He needs to think about that for a moment, but yes, up there, pointing, there is someone who did that. I will go for a look up there later. And water, I ask, there seems to be enough, how is that organized? This appears to be solved mainly individually. People have their own ways, either rainwater, or water from the streams, or water from a local source. Sometimes pits are made. Once there were plans, again by Christine Booth’s husband, to install a central water supply, but that stopped after his death. The waste water often goes via septic tanks to reed fields, where it is naturally purified.

After ordering another beer, (from their own island brew!) I ask about food, the next important source. How could that work out here, are there possibilities on the island, since it is of course quite northern with a not so long season? Enough sheep in any case, mainly for the wool of course, but also for lamb meat, most of which is exported. There are also some residents who do grow their own vegetables, under so-called poly-tunnels, but the land is not ideal. Walking around the island I had not seen any fruit or nut trees , but it appears, so Colin says, there is a orchard, where everyone can pick freely. Apparently I had missed that. (no wonder , I had not crossed the entire island, I am not such a huge hiker …)

Next I went to look for the house made of local wood. Along the road I also pass a small quarry, used for crushed stones to semi-pave most of the roads around. Yet again: local use of materials.

And indeed, after a while I come across the house in question, entirely made of wood, in an octagonal form. The owner, one of the younger residents of the island, has designed and built it himself with local wood. The facades in clapboard cladding. Since a while he has a girlfriend and he also has built her a small house , basically made out of wood. Its visible just a bit further away he points out, while apologizing for the zinc cladding he used there … It was too much work, he says. I look at him questioningly … ? It appears that he cuts the trees himself, as well as sawing the planks by hand … You know, after all, there is no sawmill on the island …! Well, here we have an example of virtually zero embodied energy approach, therefore, all respect! It takes (a lot of) labor, and time, which are precisely the two crucial factors in sustainability …

They want more, here on Eigg, but are always facing the limits of their abilities. The community is not large, and it remains an island. That has its limits as to what can and cannot be done… In that sense its similar to the whole world, also being an island …in space. And if you do not want to exhaust your resources, or start stealing from the neighbors , at some point it stops . (the ‘world’ doesn’t even have neighbors …).

Besides, the knowledge of various subjects, with a limited number of people, is of course also limited. It is a clear sign that if the community were larger, organizing things together would become easier: With a few hundred inhabitants, the chances are greater that there is an electrician among them, for example, as well as the investment capacity increases. In the case of Eigg, however, a main question currently is whether the island itself could accommodate many more inhabitants. There are neighboring small islands that are struggling with the same problem, and that have already partly taken the same initiatives as on Eigg. Of course , if all islands would have cooperated from the beginning, with a broader community of different islands, one could perhaps have hired (and trained) a full-time electrician together. But on the other hand, you have to start somewhere of course, otherwise nothing happens.

What also should be realized, is that with a larger group, discussing and deciding together becomes more difficult. On such issues, and other processes in community initiatives, Paul Chatterton wrote a good book , from experience with a community project in Leeds: Low impact Living.

Everything ends and so does the visit to Eigg. When I go to the port office for the last time, and for a beer, a surprise awaits: It is Friday afternoon, and the students are on strike! As well as the store, which is closed. Here too the Fridays for future, with the students strike, has arrived. It is only about a few people and children, but it is heart-warming to realize that people even on this tiny island are involved in this movement.

The bar however is not on strike, that would really be a revolution, and the day ends in a cheerful atmosphere, at the harbor of course, with a setting sun, which of course everyone wants to enjoy for as long as possible. What lingers is that they are doing well, here in Eigg, for whatever reason. And they are quite proud of it. And that it shows once again what a gigantic task we still have, mainlanders, if we can not make progress but have to take a step back. One of my contemporaries on the terrace, who grew up in the Liverpool of the Beatles, hands me, philosophizing about that quest, a piece of paper with a line of poetry by one of his friends, a songwriter of that long past time. It summarizes our feelings nicely: “This beautiful earth, revolving in space, please protect us from the human race …”

In Eigg, they know about life.

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