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