By Julia Hawkins, Ashden PR and Digital Media Manager
The tiny inner Hebridean Isle of Eigg captured the imaginations of Ashden Judges in 2010 with its drive to cut fossil fuel use and become more efficient in how it uses energy. I spoke to Eigg volunteer Lucy Conway to find out what progress the Island has made since winning its award...
JH: What have you been up to since you won your Award?
LC: We’ve been very busy! For a start, we spent most of our Ashden Award money on strengthening the renewable generation capacity of our electricity system by adding another 20kW of solar PV to our existing 10kW, enabling us to reach the 30kW of PV that the system was originally designed for.
As the system is now nearly 5 years old, we now have 5 years of weather data to work with. This helps us plan into the future, thinking about how we can further reduce the small amount of diesel we use in the back-up generator. For example, 2010 was very hot, with little wind or rain. As hydro or wind power weren’t really available, PV was basically the only generating source for electricity. Then in 2011, normal summer weather resumed – we had lots of wind and rain so we used more hydro and wind power. 2012 has been very dry with long sunny days, but with the additional 20kW we have managed to keep our diesel use down.
You might also remember our traffic light system, which lets people know when renewable energy sources are low so people know to be careful about what they use modify behaviour. Earlier in the summer we actually installed a real traffic light! This automatically goes red or green according to whether we are running on renewables or diesel. There was huge excitement recently when we suddenly saw it go green after a long period of red!
JH: What else has changed for you?
LC: Winning the Award really helped us raise our profile. We have had visitors coming from all over the world to learn from what we’ve been doing, from both developed and developing countries. We’ve also had lots of speaking opportunities and media coverage. For example, Aljazeera made a TV programme about us and there has been quite a lot on the BBC.
One of the very positive intangible benefits of our growing profile is that people are choosing to come to live on Eigg after hearing about our work. We now have 95 people on the island, and as many of the people who come to live here are young, they are also having children. We now have 12 kids in school, compared to only 3 when I came here 8 years ago – so that’s a fourfold increase! This is very good news for the future of the island. The nice thing about the growth is that it’s slow and gradual, so we can accommodate it – even though it’s bucking the trend of other islands.
JH: How else has life changed for islanders since going green?
LC: One of the benefits of having 24-hour electricity is that we now are able to get broadband. We were getting frustrated with satellite companies who either would go bust or would charging a fortune. So we set up our own broadband company, Hebnet, which now provides broadband connection for all the Small Isles, Knoydart and the south of Skye.
This wouldn’t be possible without constantly working electricity. It reminds you of the fact that having electricity is about more than just the comfort factor of being able to switch the light on if you want to go to the loo in the middle of the night. It’s helping bring young people back to the island, and stopping them from leaving – not just leaving for good, but just not having to commute to work – which also saves energy.
JH: What are your plans for the future?
LC: We’re now looking at adding more solar PV and, further into the future, more inverters, which extend the capacity of the existing system so we can increase the number of connections the island can handle.
We are finding a balance of what sizes of renewable generators are needed in this part of the world to get completely renewable power over a 12-month period. It will be 5 years before we have 10 years of data, so we’ll be able to make much better predictions about rainfall, wind and hours of sunlight. We will always keep the diesel generators as a maintenance back-up, but the aim is to make their use negligible.
In the first year of our new system, about 92% of our electricity came from renewable sources. Over the last year, we were about 85% reliant on renewable energy. We’d like to get back into the ‘90s.