In 2008, Eigg became the world’s first community to launch an off-grid electric system powered by wind, water and solar – and this group of residents largely taught themselves how to do it. Before that, without access to a national grid, residents relied on noisy, expensive diesel generators that only ran for a few hours a day. The electrification scheme made 24-hour power available to residents for the first time.
Today, this 12 sq mile (30 sq km) island continues to set an example, not only in how to deliver electricity from renewable energy, but how societies could meet their energy needs without access to a national grid – a challenge affecting nearly one-fifth of the world’s population.
When I arrive, the island’s tearoom by the pier is busy with visiting researchers. Two groups, one from Brazil, the other from Glasgow, have come to learn about Eigg’s system. Previous groups have come from as far as Alaska and Malawi to assess whether this may be a model for bringing electricity to the nearly 1.3 billion people who lack regular access.
Eigg is powered by three renewable sources – hydro, wind and solar – integrated into a stable, high-voltage underground grid. The system’s designer John Booth, who is the former director of its operator Eigg Electric, took me out to see how the system works. On a cliff below the 1,289ft (390m) peak of An Sgùrr, four wind turbines feed up to 24 kW of energy into the grid. Although the turbines’ blades are whirring, when I visit they are offering only about half of that: an indication of the importance of the system’s integration of three renewables.
Further north – uphill from Glebe Barn, the island’s youth hostel – photovoltaic panels face south, angled at 30 degrees to catch any sunlight that might break through the clouds. “On average, over the year, they provide about 9.5% of their rated output,” Booth says. (The solar panels have a 50kW capacity). “So if you use these as the source of your electricity over the year, you’d be dead disappointed.”