Page last updated at 11:22 GMT, Friday, 19 February 2010

Testing Eigg's green credentials

The island is beginning to reap the rewards of its green investment programme

The Isle of Eigg has been dubbed "Scotland's first green island", but what have the islanders done to deserve that accolade?

BBC Scotland Environment and Science Correspondent David Miller paid a visit to find out.

It's a cold and clear February day. The sun is beginning to set in the west, casting shafts of golden light onto the seas between Eigg and the snow-covered mountains of the mainland.

The view is breathtakingly beautiful and it's easy to see why the people of Eigg want to protect their natural environment. That may explain why the only sound I can hear is the gentle whoosh of four wind turbines which have been built here on the cliff top.

The turbines may be the most obvious indication of Eigg's environmental credentials, but they're just the start of the story.

This is the first time anyone's created a system which integrates the power of three renewables into a grid system
John Booth
Eigg Electric

Two years ago, islanders still relied on their own noisy, dirty and expensive diesel generators to produce electricity. Today, the picture is very different.

Renewable energy now provides the island with 92% of its electricity. Eigg has its own hydro-electric scheme, photo-voltaic cells which harness the power of the sun and, of course, those wind turbines too.

The target of generating 100% of Eigg's electricity without diesel generators will be almost impossible to achieve. But that's the goal.

I meet John Booth, the director of the island's power company, Eigg Electric, outside what appears to be an agricultural shed. But inside, there's a bank of bright yellow panels and a room full of red batteries.

John explains: "The whole system is controlled and integrated in this building. These yellow panels are inverters. In the room beyond there's a system of batteries which guarantee we get power 24 hours a day.

"This is the first time anyone's created a system which integrates the power of three renewables into a grid system. It's a high voltage grid of approximately 11 kilometres, which runs the length of the island. We are very proud of it."

Positive example

It seems simple. When there's more power than the island needs, the electricity is stored in the rows and rows of batteries. These are used to top up the supply when there's a shortage of power. If things get really bad, two modern diesel generators kick in. But that's happening less and less.

In reality, the system is complex and advanced. It's just one of the reasons why Eigg won a share of the first prize in a major environmental competition.

The Big Green Challenge was run by Nesta - the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. The judges were impressed by Eigg's wide range of environmental initiatives. In fact, they were so impressed that they awarded Eigg £300,000 to spend on new projects.

Light bulb
Islanders are aiming for up to 100% renewable power

Nesta spokesman Graeme Downie believes the islanders are setting a positive example for the rest of us.

He tells me: "Politicians talk a lot about involving communities in solutions to major problems. The Big Green Challenge set up by Nesta was about actually achieving that.

"You only have to look around you here on Eigg to see what the community here has managed to achieve - a 32% reduction in carbon emissions in just one year. That's remarkable when you consider that the Scottish government's target for 2020 is a 42% reduction."

So what comes next? The £300,000 prize is a lot of money for an island with a population of less than a hundred. Detailed plans are still being drawn up but there's certainly no lack of ambition.

There's a whole range of projects which we're hoping to have up and running over the next few years
Lucy Conway

Lucy Conway was one of the islanders who worked on Eigg's bid to win Nesta's Big Green Challenge.

She says: "We would hope to buy more photo-voltaic panels so that we can increase the amount of electricity we generate from renewables from 92% to either 99 or 100%.

"We're looking at things like an electric community bus, because we have no public transport. We're looking into growing more of our food locally and an eco-house for volunteers.

"There's a whole range of projects which we're hoping to have up and running over the next few years."

Eigg is clearly aiming high. But are there lessons here for those of us who live in Scotland's towns and cities? Few of us have access to the natural resources which islanders have at their disposal.

But Simon Helliwell, the director of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, believes we can all learn from what's been achieved here, on this small Hebridean island.

He says: "We just happen to be a community surrounded by water, but you could take any community in an inner-city, a town or a village and do the same things we've done. They're all small communities, just like us."

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