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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 January 2008, 17:42 GMT
Electric dreams
By Ed Challes
BBC News

Wind turbine on Eigg
Residents donated 30,000 to the cost
The tiny Hebridean island of Eigg has never had a mains supply of electricity, relying on micro-generators to power its crofthouses and small businesses. So what's the feeling ahead of the big switch-on?

While most Britons turn on radios and kettles as soon as they wake, Sue Kirk has to trudge outside to crank her generator by hand.

"You might not bother with the generator for just the lights," says Mrs Kirk, who runs a shop on the remote island of Eigg.

"You might just have candles instead, it's a bit rustic. You notice the lack of electricity in the winter when it's dark."

WHERE IS EIGG?
Map of Eigg

For the first time, the tiny island with fewer than 100 residents will receive mains electricity on Friday.

A combined hydro-electric, wind and solar powered system will supply continuous power to the light bulbs, computers and washing machines of the island's 71 properties via a six-mile network of cables.

"Folk here are used to doing things for themselves," says Maggie Fyffe, the secretary of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, the community body that owns the 12-square mile island.

Ten years ago, the island became a powerful symbol of independence when its inhabitants teamed up with the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Highland Council to take over the land for themselves.

The move came after years of living under private and often absentee ownership, and at last gave the islanders control of their own destiny.

BEFORE THE SWITCH ON...
homes were powered by diesel, wind or hydro-generators
electricity was unreliable and restricted to certain hours
some residents went without washing machines and vacuum cleaners
the noise from the generators could be heard for miles
Diesel was delivered by boat but services sometimes cancelled
Since then they have renovated houses, created businesses, installed broadband and in the latest community triumph, given themselves power.

"I'm really looking forward to a washing machine and a Hoover," Mrs Fyffe says. "Until now I've had to wash everything by hand".

Simple matters that do not cross the mind of those used to constant electricity are at the forefront of every Eigg resident's mind.

...AND AFTER
a new 1.6m high-voltage network harnessing wind, hydro and solar power
electricity will be continuous
cheaper bills are expected
Karen Helliwell, who runs a guesthouse, says: "It sounds ridiculous, but modern washing machines take up a lot of power, so you need a reliable generator.

"You have to turn the tumble dryer on to get the generator up to speed. With so much power it's almost cutting itself out before you can turn the washing machine on.

"Then you have to listen to the change in notes, when it reaches the powerful spin, before you can turn the tumble dryer off, so you don't break the generator. You can't go out and leave it, you need to be there all the time."

20-year campaign

It has been hard for both individuals and the island's few businesses. The village shop has only a small freezer and chiller and has only recently been able to power them for 24 hours a day.

You can't go out for a quiet evening walk, because every house you walk past has its generator on and all you'll hear is 'thud thud thud'
Karen Helliwell
Guesthouse owner
The area around the pier in the south-east corner of the island, which contains several of the main businesses including the shop, a tearoom and offices, was powered by a micro-hydro scheme, but a particularly dry spell late last year left them reliant on a back-up generator.

In November that 14 kilowatt (kW) generator broke and since then, those businesses have shared a single 10 kW source. After the switch-on, they can use 10 kW each.

The breakthrough comes at the end of a 20-year campaign of phone calls and letters to persuade the electricity companies and the government to install mains power.

THE ISLAND OF EIGG
Isle of Eigg (pic by Graeme Churchard)
The name of the island is pronounced 'egg'
The residents bought the island in 1997 and run it under the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust
In the 1920s it was a private sporting estate
The Normandy landing was rehearsed there in WW2
Its squeaky beach is nick- named the Singing Sands
Population was 500 in the 19th Century and in 2005 was 87
South of Skye, the island is 9km long and 5km wide
Residents decided they could go without power for no longer and by 2006 the 1.6m cost was met, thanks to residents, the European Union, lottery cash and other bodies.

"We're very proud, an awful lot of people have put a lot of effort in," says Mrs Fyffe. With a population of only 87, teamwork was essential, but something they were already used to.

"We've got farmers, school teachers, a doctor, people who work in the teashop - everybody here has several jobs to make the island work."

It was important to use renewable power sources, she says, in keeping with the island's green credentials, and there are many lessons the rest of the UK could learn about energy conservation and self-sufficiency.

But are there any reservations about losing the island's reputation as an idyllic retreat?

Far from it, it seems. "It'll be far less noisy," says Mrs Helliwell. "You can't go out for a quiet evening walk, because every house you walk past has its generator on and all you'll hear is 'thud thud thud', you can hear a generator from three miles away going 'thud thud thud'."

Having a breather

And amid all the excitement and her thoughts of getting a toaster, Mrs Kirk finds a glimmer of regret.

Solar panels on Eigg
The new system combines solar, wind and hydro power
"I daresay if in years to come when we get a whiff of diesel we may be reminded of life like this," reflects Mrs Kirk.

"It's also a nice community event, collecting the diesel from the harbour every month."

So with the electric dream realised, what's next on the list of improvements?

"We'll all have a wee pause of breath after this," says Mrs Fyffe, "but there's always something we can tackle."


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

The residents really did 'Go to work on an Eigg' Well done all you Eiggians Power to the Eigg At last
Kevthebrit, Rochester MN USA

What could be done in any community with a hand out of 10,000/head (assuming they raised 6000/head)?
Simon Milledge, East Knoyle

The Isle of Eigg was recently featured on Blue Peter, and I remember them reporting that the entire population had been slaughtered on two occations in its history! So well done to Eigg for not only getting electricity but also not all being wiped out.
Nich Hill, Gosport UK

Good luck to them, but at a cost of 20,000 per inhabitant it could only have been done for a small population using lottery money. It demonstrates the economic unfeasibility of renewables.
Michael Canton, Rural Somerset

They'll be getting a Starbucks and Macdonalds any time now!
Peter Bradshaw, Tadcaster

Well done to the people of Eigg. I hope that soon all of the UK will be powered like this and lead the world in environmentally friendly power. No nuclear (unclear) power and minimal carbon based fuels.
Barry Metcalfe, Leighton Buzzard England

This is the way it should be everywhere. Most of us have the capacity and resources to generate our own power whether it be as an individual or as a community. My idea - all new houses/flats should be fitted with turbines, solar panels or other form of electricy generation.
Paula, aberdeen

Congratulations to Eigg, one of the loveliest and most welcoming of all the Islands. I'm only an occasional visitor but always find it completely enchanting, and now its power generation is 'green' it's taken one further step towards an ideal. I have long thought that Eigg is a model of how things should be - how can the writer think that Eigg is losing its 'idyllic reputation'?
Ben, Isle of Luing

Assuming the facts contained in the article to be correct I find it disgraceful that these people have to spend 20 years raising their own money to give themselves electricity when we spend billions of pounds in Irag and Afghanistan. This is the 21st century! It's time we got our priorities right!
Gwyn Jones, Cardiff

That's what life is really all about, facing adversity and just getting on with life. I wonder how many of our pampered people nowadays would last in situations like this? When you've never had something, to finally get it must be a fantastic feeling, no matter how basic that commodity is. Well done Eigg, I hope you get everything you wish for.
Maximus, Boxgrove UK

What a great story of self sufficiency, going back to a much simpler era when people overcame problems and could do things for themselves. Well done Eigg for resisting the march of time for so long, (you hardy bunch) and good luck for the future of you all.
Neil Farrell, Liverpool (UK)

I guess the people have got it cracked this time! Sorry.
Lloyd Williams, Farnham Surrey

Brilliant! Well done the people of Eigg The Government and the rest of the UK should take note instead of even contemplating going down the coal fired and nuclear power route
Christopher Walmsley, Poulton-leFylde, Lancashire

I think it is fabulous that the people of Eigg have resolved their own energy needs. I strongly feel that this is the way for future communities in Britain to achieve sustainable power. We need to bring our own energy needs down to a community level then they will be achievable in a sustainable non detrimental way, to our environment.
Sabrina Hazelwood, Bath

I spent 2 weeks on Eigg as a teenager back in 1970. A beautiful island and lovely people. I have followed what has happened on Eigg over the past 30 some years. This is wonderful news to add to the achievements that the islanders have accomplished. Congratulations and enjoy!
Neil, Leeds

Well Done!
john dunning, Barnsley (Scot Pat)

I think we all can learn something from these people. Well done the inhabitants of Eigg!!
Lee Viner, Antrim Northern Ireland

Well dome the people of Eigg! You are an inspiration to us all.
Charlotte Smith, Aberfeldy, Perthshire

Are there any islands left without electricity? I like the sound of it.
Grouchmonkey, Colchester

Eigg is quite a place. It has a fascinating history, with stories of dark and bloody deeds,and its wildlife and natural environment are spectacular. The views from Laig Bay towards Rum, and from the top of the Sgurr are incredible. It's also turning out to be a bit of a leader in the development of small isolated communities. The 1997 community buyout of the island, from an absentee landlord, has given inspiration for other similar communities to follow. Now we have the development of an energy scheme based on the use of a variety of renewable sources. This will, hopefully, encourage other communities to do the same. Eigg, you are and example to us all - good on you and may the island and the community continue to thrive. With love from John Robson & Fern Hodges
John Robson, Rugby

I'd be interested to see how much money was provided by the islanders and how much by the EU. As the cost of this project was over 160,000 per person!
adam, london

This is a brilliant example of the power of renewables - perhaps if more people in the UK generally had had to suffer the inconveniences and hardships that the Eigg inhabitants have over the years they would be more receptive to renewable energy, in all it's forms!
Trevor, Mid Wales

My family visited Eigg a few times whilst on our annual holiday in Glenuig in the 80's. It is one of the remotest and most beautiful places. The exitement of getting the ferry over was fantastic, but the residants talking about all the generators did bring back memories of walking down the one road on the island listening to the Thud, thud thud of the generators. I hope the constant electricity brings a more peaceful way of life to you all.
James Clarke, Northwich

Wow what a fantastic story to read, it really makes you realise how we take electricity for granted. I would love to visit Eigg one day it sounds a wonderfull place, and the people sound lovely also.
Linda Parham, Buckingham, Buckinghamshire.

Renewable micro-power generation has to be a sensible way forward for most of the rest of the UK. Surely, if many of the UK's household generated a only small part of the power they need / use through wind or solar, the demands on centrally produced 'mains' power would be much less. Therefore we could easily reduce our national Co2 footprint; not need to build as many new power stations and cut our domestic energy bills. This is not rocket science and it's just a shame that the Governement doesn't put some serious funding support behind this approach to encourage and support people who can and or want to, install wind or solar generators but have found it too costly to do so thus far or faced planning red tape! I guess however, it's easier to tax the motorist, 4x4 drivers, air travellers etc., than find a sustainable solution to both our Co2 issues and growing demands for power.
Paul, Tonbridge

Congrats to Eigg but a few of these (us) posters ought to realise that this way of life is impossible on a larger scale - those of you that think it 'the way we all should manage' have missed the point entirely - they only managed becasue they did without the so called 'essentials' like washing machines and toasters and such like. How many of us would 'survive' on a grand scale in similar circumstances? My goodness, it's all we can do to drag our sorry selves away from the telly at the adverts to put the kettle on! Congrats to the islanders but I hope you don't regret the arrival of 'normality'
Steve B, Lee-on-the-Solent, Hants

I wonder what their immigraiton policies are like...
Mary, Northampton

Eigg has been in need of this for some time, its a wonder that they haven't been helped sooner - however, helping yourself and having a continuous supply of power must be an amazing thing - they are about to boost themselves into the future from the past. A place I hope to visit in April :)
Alan McLaughlin, Stirlingshire Scotland

This is a heartwarming story, congratulations to the people of Eigg, all respect to you for working so hard to overcome problems! Just for everyone's information, I work in energy, and 100% renewable energy for the rest of the UK is currently impossible. The amount of electricity used everyday by us is huge, and currently there is no way to provide enough just through those sources. Green energy and nuclear is the best compromise, much as I wish it wasn't. I don't mean to dampen anyone's fire as it were, but that's the truth. Well done again to the people of Eigg, I am truly envious of your community spirit!
Dan, Cardiff

The building of wind turbines is certainly appropriate in this instance. Re Sabrina's comment about communities, resolving their own energy needs. My mother's family come from the villlage of Llanuwchllyn in North Wales, their valley had their own small hydro scheme in the 1930's so much for "progress"
Bob Hughes, Newcastle upon Tyne

To Adam from London: The cost of this is irrelevant; what matters is that a deserving community got what it needs. I'd like to see how many Londoners (or the rest of us) would manage without power for more than ten minutes.
Keith, Sheffield, UK

Well done people. It is a lovely story in this day and age. People pulling together. Must visit.
Michael Curry, Newmachar Aberdeenshire

Well Done to Eigg. It's time that countries get their priorities straight and look after its own people. Look at South Africa ( Power cuts and 'Load Shedding') and Zimbabwe - days without power. Instead of spending money on arms and wars give power to the people - or is this an idyllic view?
Conrad Rossouw, Oban

Those people who complain about "the economic unfeasibility of renewables" have missed the obvious flaw in their argument : that with more of us implementing such schemes, the price comes down dramatically. Congratulations Eigg! Jai Gomer
Jai Gomer, Wales, UK

OK so based on 50 quid a month per person and 50% profitability it could take a century to break even. That is called public investment. I think most people would be surprised at the amount of money tied up in telephone, water, power and sewage infrastructure.
David Alexander, Edinburgh

If for one am very unhappy with this development! I hate the concept of bringing my beloved Eigg up to the 21st century. I'll now be able to see my mistress under the light of a electric lightbulb - something i'm currenty quite worried about!
James Bownd, Eigg, Scotland

Readers appear to be struggling with the maths of how much this project cost! Here is a breakdown: Project cost 1.6 million and the island has 87 inhabitants and 71 properties. Therefore cost per inhabitant = 18,391 and cost per property = 22,535. Hope that clears things up!
Mark Wallace, Bristol

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