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.
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.