Fair Isle’s renewable energy system offers not just 24-hour power but the potential for economic growth and prosperity in this most remote of locations, finds Colin Cardwell

When a community project which brought clean power to one of the country’s most remote outposts took the top prize at the Scottish Green Energy Awards in Edinburgh last year it was the latest conquest in a quiet but significant revolution in some of our rural island outposts. 

Fair Isle’s new renewable energy system uses wind turbine generators, a ground-mounted solar photovoltaic system and battery storage and has allowed its 55 islanders to use electricity around the clock for the first time.
Three miles long and not quite two miles wide, Fair Isle is one of the most isolated inhabited island communities in the UK – a journey of two and a half hours by boat across frequently tempestuous seas (it can be cut off for days or even weeks at a time) or half an hour by plane from mainland Shetland.  

Like many other small island communities, it had relied solely on diesel powered generators – now used solely as backup if the battery charge level falls below 40%.

The community, while the key to delivery, has relied on technology – plus a lot of finance. In this case, it was £1.5 million funding from the Scottish Government’s Low Carbon Infrastructure Transition Programme (LCITP) and £250,000 from Highlands and Islands Enterprise. 

The project was led by Fair Isle Electricity Company (FIEC), who engaged renewable energy specialists Wind & Sun, based in Herefordshire to supply the 588kWh 44 tonne battery store, 126kW inverter system and 50kWp PV (photovoltaics) array which would provide power and storage to the island community.

Wind & Sun gained a head start in the race for renewables on the Isle of Eigg, where there had been a community buyout in 1997. In February 2008 the world’s first completely wind, water and sun-powered electricity grid was handed over to Eigg Electric, a community-owned company.

Since then, the renewable, off-grid model has grown its own, modest but vital network in communities which would otherwise be, quite literally, cut off from many advantages, including the internet – a key factor in persuading people to set up business in areas which have suffered from concerning levels of egress to the cities.
Of course it’s a positive result for Fair Isle and a contiguous project based on Sanday and Canna in the Inner Hebrides, where dependable, renewable power sources will allow new houses to be built and re-energise the population.  

Putting the infrastructure in place, though, has taken years of planning, tenacity and persistence from the island communities. On Fair Isle this has been through FIEC and the developers.

“There were logistical problems getting to both Fair Isle and Sanday because both are remote and rely on small ferries or a small plane which makes it difficult to get materials, tools and people there” says Wind & Sun managing director Steve Wade, who points out that it had been equally difficult getting diesel fuel there for generators.

“It was great to improve their options,” he says.

The storage batteries the company has installed balance the outgoing electrical requirements with the incoming power supply and offer a reliable source of electricity which can be used when solar or wind power is not available.
Wade says what differentiates the Scottish projects Wind & Sun has worked on is the community involvement.

“That’s where the great success comes from and one of the reasons it attracted funding because having electricity 24 hours a day means the potential for new businesses and  encourages younger people to stay on or move back to the islands.”

Robert Mitchell, company director of FIEC, says the 24-hour-a-day access to electricity has greatly enhanced the quality of life on the island. 

“The system has been operating since September and is working remarkably well, though we are trying to get our third wind turbine working.

“However, the two up and running are producing more than 100KW of power which is more than the island needs. 

“It keeps the batteries charged and our new solar panels are working fantastically well even at this time of the year.”

Older people and families with young children especially appreciate the difference the new system has brought, he says, adding that establishing a better broadband connection for the islanders is the next challenge.

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