Eigg Electric supplies the whole island with free electricity

After All: brazen, innovative, and sure as Eigg is Eigg

Image credit: Dreamstime

To mark the 15th anniversary of his collaboration with the IET, our columnist takes readers away from the ongoing war, to a small, yet technologically unique, Scottish island.

In an article on Ukraine that I contributed to a national political monthly shortly after the Russian invasion, I surmised that after a while, the amount of British media war coverage was likely to dwindle. The public would get used to the war and start seeing it as an unfortunate, yet distant, reality, having little to do with themselves.

Two months later, I must admit that I was right and wrong: media coverage of the war has indeed gone down, but public support for my long-suffering, yet brave and proud, motherland stays strong and unanimous.

Life goes on, and human nature is such that it cannot focus on wars and conflicts alone. To function properly, we require regular intakes of positivity and hope. Having devoted my last four columns to the war, I have chosen a different topic this time – my own 15th anniversary of joining the IET.

It may sound trivial compared to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, or to the 150 years of the IET itself last year, but to me, 23 May 2007, when I started my employment as features editor of E&T, marked a substantial change in my life, which led eventually to leaving London and moving to Hertfordshire, closer to my new workplace. I spent over 13 years as an IET staffer until my retirement in 2020 – my life’s longest stretch of full-time employment.

Those 13 years, alongside lots of achievements and positive happenings, included months of a most serious illness, when I had to spend many weeks in hospitals after emergency open-heart surgery. It was then that I felt lots of support, warmth, and care not just from my E&T colleagues, but from the organisation as a whole, including HR, senior managers and the CEO. I won’t forget that for as long as I live.

Another life-changing IET influence was my enhanced fascination with engineering and technology, which I tried to share with my readers, both inside and outside the IET. The unlikely culmination of that interest is my ‘Atlas of Geographical Curiosities’, which comes out in October 2022 in five different languages simultaneously (find it on Amazon). Many entries in that book are inspired by engineering and technology – and hence by the IET. I have already introduced some of them to E&T readers in my ‘pre-war’ columns (not being sure they will all eventually make it to the ‘Atlas’).

Today, I want to familiarise you with yet another techno-curiosity: the small Scottish island of Eigg, which is officially the first community in the world that has achieved complete renewable-energy self-​sufficiency. I visited it briefly while researching the Atlas several years ago.

Eigg – a kidney-shaped island (measuring five miles by three) 10 miles from the mainland, is one of the Small Isles in the Inner Hebrides. With an area of 12 square miles (31km2) and a population of around 100, it is the second largest of the Small Isles, after Rùm.

For years, Eigg has been known for its ‘singing sands’, a peculiar sound of the wind in the dunes. It was compared by one explorer to an Aeolian harp, and a noise made by man walking in corduroy trousers by another.

Historically, the island was owned by a series of landlords – at times, too eccentric and withdrawn to ever bother to visit, and formalities made the development of public ownership near impossible.

Eventually the residents launched a fund-raising campaign for a community buyout, with the support of the Highland Council and the Scottish Wildlife Trust, and in 1997 ownership passed to the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, which manages the island on behalf of the community.

One early consequence was the establishment of Eigg Electric, a company wholly owned and operated by the island’s residents through the Trust. Ten years later, Eigg achieved a global milestone in sustainable development – complete electricity self-​sufficiency, based on renewable energy. Having previously relied on diesel generators for a few hours of electricity a day, in 2008 it became the first community in the world to launch an off-grid system based just on renewable sources, the wind, water and sun. This, for the first time, gave residents 24-hour access to power. Despite the local population having risen from around 65 at the end of the 1990s to about 100 due to the influx of outsiders, energy provision has remained sufficient to satisfy everyone’s needs.

An 11km network of underground cables distributes energy to households and businesses around the island, with transformers converting the high voltage to domestic one. The grid is also connected to a bank of batteries, capable of providing electricity to the whole island for up to 24 hours.

Power can flow both ways: if renewables produce more than is being consumed on the island, the grid recharges the batteries. The batteries eventually get fully charged and accept no more power, at which stage a series of switches activate heaters in communal churches, the community hall, public toilets, and pier lobby.

Islanders aren’t charged for consumption, since the whole community benefits from the additional energy, accumulated in the winter due to the abundance of wind and rain. When there’s insufficient power, the stored energy in the batteries is used to power the micro-grid.

This model of public ownership and responsibility has set an example abroad and has attracted researchers to Eigg from all over the world, including at some point, yours truly.

The good news is that I am now hoping to return to Eigg shortly as I have been invited to take part in an expedition to the remote Scottish islands (Inner and Outer Hebrides, Shetland, Orkney etc) on board MV Greg Mortimer. Weather and itinerary permitting, we’ll visit Eigg too, and I’ll be able to see for myself how the island’s unique technological initiative is progressing.

I will, of course, tell the readers about other innovative technologies on the islands we will visit and about the ship herself (built in 2019, she must be stuffed with bang up-to-date gadgets and technologies).

As for the war, it will be over soon, I am sure. Wars come and go, but peaceful technologies stay with us for good – this is another simple dictum I learned during my 15 years with the IET. 

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