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Isle of Eigg a model of energy self-sufficiency

On the scenic island off Scotland, all electricity is made locally.

(Page 2 of 2)

"We didn't want to have our electricity coming from nuclear power on the mainland anyway," says Maggie Fyffe, secretary of the trust and fundraiser for the project.

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The islanders decided on a combination of solar, wind, and hydropower. They raised $3.2 million from a number of sources, including the European Union's regional development fund, Britain's national lottery, the Scottish government, and local and regional government programs. A newly created company, Eigg Electric, a subsidiary of the trust, appointed a project manager and partnered with an electrical company from the mainland.

"It was a very exciting project, as integrating all three renewables had never been done before," says Eigg Electric co-director John Booth, a retired industrial relations consultant from England who moved to the island in 2000 with his wife to renovate an old house.

When the idea for the project took hold, he poured himself into it as a full-time volunteer. No one knew if the grid would really work, he says. "We did our homework, and when we came up against something we didn't know, we went back to the physics books."

The project could not have developed had a defining event not taken place on Eigg just over a decade ago. For centuries, the entire island had been owned by a series of single landowners, meaning the residents were renters who could never own land. In 1996, the exasperated islanders teamed up to buy the island for themselves. Donations flooded in from across Britain and from as far away as Detroit.

In June 1997, the islanders took ownership of Eigg. In the following years, they built a new jetty; renovated the village hall, school, shop, and tearoom; and, in the most expensive project to date, created the new electrical grid.

"Before the buyout we were just surviving. Now we can look ahead and build a solid future," says Camille Dressler, the island historian, who was drawn to Eigg as an anthropology student and never left. "The electri­city is part of this dream which has come true. It's very liberating."

Critics of the new scheme – none of them islanders – say it was too expensive and a waste of taxpayers' money. On the ferry, one visitor pointed out that for the price of the grid per head, every inhabitant could have been given a small yacht.

But for Booth, the benefits of Eigg's green power outweigh the cost. Renewable energy doesn't risk becoming much more expensive, unlike the diesel fuel used to power the old generators. Islanders also say their pricing system is fairer.

"On the mainland, everyone can use as much electricity as they want. But market forces dictate what the price will be, and the people who can pay, will. That penalizes the poor," Booth says. "Our system has a much more social aspect to it. Everybody is allocated the same amount of electricity, so everybody pays the same. That way everyone benefits.

"Not only is our system sustainable, but people actually have to think about how much power they can use."