So I went to Eigg, Scotland… 1/2

So I went to Eigg. I had already heard about it, and also wrote about it, on the basis of information collected at a distance. But I wanted to know what was really behind it, and why it had happened. Where? On the island of Eigg, off the West coast of Scotland. They have their own electricity network there, completely separate from the mainland. It runs on a few small wind turbines, some solar panels and some hydropower. So how do they manage there, in Scotland, where it always rains, right?

I am lucky: The moment the Ferry moors, the sun breaks through, and will shine all three days while I am staying on the island. It were the first 3 days of sun after a very wet summer on the island …

Its a nice idea , to realize that you are on an island, and that it is not at all linked to the rest of the world, in terms of electricity. That it must all come from organization on the island itself. Knowing that the world itself is also an island: we cannot get off either and we have to solve it together. And here on Eigg I would experience that, in a small scale that is.

On arrival I just about meet the entire community: there are only 100 people living on Eigg, and the arrival of the ferry (1x per day) is the time to come to the jetty, to pick up goods, mail or purchases, and especially to exchange news . It is also the only place where you can eat or drink something, so I will regularly ‘moor’ there. Because of the contacts, of course. Though the first contacts had already been laid, I understood from the lady who rented me a small shack. She had, hearing the reason for my visit at the time of reservation , immediately taken action: in the afternoon a conversation was arranged with the woman who, along with the late husband, was responsible for the start of the project years ago.

After installing ourselves in a “tiny house” on the hill, (but with a terrace in the sun), we first took some time to look around. Sheep here and there, half-paved roads mainly, or better paths, and, as it became obvious in the evening, no lamppost to be found on the island! Wonderful, that darkness! And with clear sky the whole Milky way at our front door.

But before that , back at the harbor to do some shopping, accidentally we meet the woman, Christine Booth, with whom we have an appointment later. But the contact has already been established and the conversation starts immediately and will not stop for the next few hours …

The beginning of the electrification can be dated to when the Booth family buys a home on Eigg, which requires a lot of refurbishment and power tools are handy. So they first decide to invest in a small wind turbine next to their house, with some batteries. But when the neighbor later becomes pregnant and a child is born, she gets into electrical trouble, that is needing too much diesel which is also expensive, they decide to extend the system to the neighbors.

Sometime after when the ideas about a joint island electricity grid are discussed, a certain unfamiliarity and distrust on the islands inhabitants has already been overcome.

The discussion about their own island energy grid could arise because at some point earlier the entire island had been taken over by the residents: it was bought, with the help of some government funds, from a classic English Landlord. [1] And as a result, they can get organized as residents and co-owners to address some joint issues. One of the first is : the diesel generators, that actually annoyed everyone.

The plans for an own energy network where ready on paper, but then practice kicked in … Good plan, until it turned out that not a single house actually met the basic electricity requirements. Everyone had tinkered with electricity, unprotected cords of all kinds, even using thin bell wire. Via an electrician from the mainland who trained someone locally to adjust all connections, this was solved and approved 6 months later. There were countless minor and major problems like this one that needed to be eliminated. Such as the burial of cables, for which the entire community was mobilized to dig. To keep a long story short: In the end the system consists of 4 small wind turbines of 6 kW each, three small hydropower generators and a Solar panel field, together with batteries and a backup generator forming the island’s electricity grid. The batteries are sufficient for 24-hour island supply. There are also times when there is too much energy. The church, the community hall and a school are connected to the grid, which will be heated at times of surplus power, which is usually in winter and combines very well. And all that for ‘free’ because the entire community benefits. The connections at home are not free. Everyone has a meter to keep track of consumption, and always buys a certain amount of energy, for 10 or 20 pounds. Which ensures that everyone is aware of their use. A maximum of 5 kW is supplied. If you go over it, that will turn off the installation automatically. You have to call the electricity team to reconnect, costs: 20 pounds. It rarely happens …

The grid was finally installed, but how to get rid of the diesel generators, everyone still had? When everyone had agreed on the joint electricity grid, it was decided that it was not allowed to connect the diesel generator to the grid. The grid was not prepared to cope with that. So either one or the other. In the beginning people still switched between the systems, but after the first year they were hardly used anymore, since the basic network functioned well. Now 10-12 years later, most have even sold their diesel generator.

The two biggest problems to overcome in the whole process, in fact were money and manpower. With 80 people on the island back then, not all knowledge and expertise is available, like lacking of the aforementioned electrician (as well as a doctor, by the way.) A lot of expertise has to be hired from the mainland. Which is expensive, and calls for much pragmatism . For example, there was the problem of the switching strategy between the energy sources: sun, wind and water. The company that installed the grid could also arrange that. “How are you going to do that?” was the question: “Well, there are 9 options, which we will all calculate with the parameters of the island.” Cost: 100,000 Euros, even without the costs of testing. Impossible, because in that case fewer solar panels could be installed. So the husband of Christine Booth, the main driver behind the scheme, sat down for a weekend, studied the options, and on the following Monday informed everyone what it was going to be…. That was a bit of a gamble, but it worked out well. Pragmatism, just doing or starting, is the motto. Which is the same motto I already knew from other projects: Jaime Lerner, Mayor in Curitiba, Brazil, who completely restructured his city, and Peter Vadasz, mayor in Gussing Austria, who transformed his town entirely to run on its own renewable energy.

But then again, why did it actually succeed, in Eigg, to construct such a communal renewable electricity grid? Actually, that is best expressed by a little boy who answered Santa Claus’ question about what he wanted most: electricity, he answered: It was not actually available. Those diesel generators did not work all day, and often failed. And a freezer for example could not work on it (hence no ice creams for the kids….), making the islanders dependent on food occasionally coming from the mainland. There was also no mobile phone option, at the time already booming, let alone the internet. With a reliable 24-hour electricity supply, that could be introduced as well. The conclusion is, therefore, that by constructing a renewable energy electricity grid life for everyone in Eigg actually improved! I call it the advantage of the stimulating backlog. Unlike people on mainland communities, who will have to take a step back when going off grid. Now life on Eigg may have significantly improved with their own electricity grid, but it is still far from being possible to do everything that is happening on the mainland: there are still periods of limited electricity, in which case everyone is asked to only do what is absolutely necessary. What helps is that there is a ‘traffic light’ at the harbor shop: green means the grid just functioning normally, red is the signal that everyone is supposed to limit their energy consumption. In practice, that works fine, the backup diesel generators are rarely running, the uptime of the grid is above 95%.

end of part 1: next: electric cars, harvesting wood and a climate strike….