Catching the wind

How the irregular energy supply on Fair Isle can leave you feeling like you're in a "very slow and i

For newcomers to this island there are some things that take just a bit of getting used to; power, for example.

When I arrived in Fair Isle I had, like most people, always enjoyed a reliable and consistent source of electricity. When I woke in the morning I could turn on a light, listen to a CD, heat my porridge in the microwave (though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that method). And if I wanted to stay up all night doing these things, all I needed was the will.

Here things are slight different. Our electricity comes from two sources: diesel-burning generators and wind power. We have two aerogenerators (that’s windmills to the uninitiated) – a 60kw mill and a 100kw. When the wind is sufficient to provide power to all the houses on the island then that is what happens; when the wind drops, the diesel generators take over. There is, however, a gap of between 10 and 30 seconds for the changeover, meaning that some evenings feel rather like being in a very slow and irritating disco, as the lights go on and off every few minutes.

Wind power is by far the preferable option. Not only is it greener, it is also cheaper, and it’s available for 24 hours a day. The diesel generators, on the other hand, are switched off between 11.30pm and 7.30am, meaning that all-night parties are restricted to breezy nights. This is an inconvenience that is quickly adjusted to, and in fact I have come to rather enjoy reading by candlelight.

I have written before that Shetland is a windy place, and so it is. A very windy place. This weekend, like much of the UK, these islands have been battered by severe gales, with winds reaching to almost hurricane force early on Sunday morning. Wind is an abundant, renewable energy source, unlike diesel, which, along with heating oil and gas for cooking, must be shipped into the island in barrels and canisters on an all-too-regular basis.

The first Fair Isle windmill was put up in 1981, making it the earliest such project in the UK. Both the mills and the generators are owned and maintained by the Fair Isle Electricity Company, which is run entirely by islanders. It is a local, community solution to our energy needs. It is unfortunate that, at this time, diesel is still required to power the island for a good proportion of the time, but when another option becomes available I’m sure it will be taken.

Necessity breeds innovation, and it is in places like Fair Isle where necessity is most keenly felt. Perhaps that explains why the move towards renewable energy has been so slow in the UK. You flick the switch and there is light; if you want gas then it will come through a pipe straight to the cooker; power cuts are a rare inconvenience. Why would you want to rock the boat? People are so disconnected from the production of what they consume, whether that be food, goods or power, that they come to see it as almost a kind of magic: beyond their comprehension or concern.

Human beings are incredibly good at ignoring reality. If the weatherman says rain then the umbrella comes out, no matter how blue the sky. And equally, when all the evidence points towards the fact that we must, must, change our attitudes towards energy consumption and waste, it is met with collective shoulder-shrugging and grumbles at increased fuel tax. But if we all wait until no other option is available before we change our bad habits, it will, perhaps, be too late.

Photos by Dave Wheeler

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.