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Getting down to business: one community's journey to self-sustainability

Elaine Brass
10th September 2009
Next week, Westray, one of the most north westerly of the northern islands in the Orkneys will switch on a new, top of the range wind turbine.
Westray has a population of just 600, but once its new Class 1A 900kW Enercon E-44 wind turbine is turning, the island expects to be ploughing hundreds of thousands of pounds back into the community. By taking advantage of one of their strongest, natural resources – wind – the islanders hope to create a sustainable economy and turn around their dwindling population.

Westray is by no means the only community looking to carve out a sustainable economy by harnessing its natural resources. Community Energy Scotland, the sustainable energy development charity, is working with around 30 other Scottish communities interested in setting up their own renewable project and there are many more around the UK. But Westray is something of a trailblazer.

Westray first began looking into investing in a wind turbine back in 1998. Then it formed the Westray Development Trust, a registered charity, to help the island create a sustainable income and turn around the problem of a declining population.

David Stephenson, a volunteer leading the project on the island, said initial progress was rapid. “We got planning permission and an offer of a grid connection.” But the project was stalled because of lack of confidence from the turbine manufacturing industry. “For more than two frustrating years, we couldn’t find a manufacturer who would sell a single turbine to us,” explains Stephenson.

The hold up was made even more frustrating as Westray Renewable Energy Ltd, the trading offshoot of the island’s development trust, had half the investment in place from the Big Lottery Fund, through a grant of £761,000 – roughly 50 per cent of the capital cost – with the rest secured from Triodos Bank.

The problem of purchasing a single turbine was solved when Community Energy Scotland invited German turbine manufacturers to visit Westray and other islands, to see for themselves that selling a single turbine was a viable option.

Indeed, income from the turbine for the first year is expected to exceed £100,000 and, as the islanders pay off their loan, it will increase to in excess of £200,000 per annum.

Clearly the return on investment was a big factor in convincing Triodos to come on board, but Steve Moore relationship manager, environment, explains that the bank got involved for other reasons too. “This type of renewable community project is very much what we are about. It links into our social and environmental criteria: these islands are losing their young people and need to create sustainable economies through profitable businesses,” he says. “They have some fantastic natural resources and having a project that taps into that potential and providing a cash flow directly into the local economy is very helpful for them.”

Westray has also signed a 10-year flexible power purchase agreement (PPA), with SmartestEnergy, which specialises in purchasing electricity from independent, renewable sources. The price is not fixed, so Westray has a choice as to when it fixes the price – over seasons or years with this contract, says Iain Robertson, SmartestEnergy’s Scottish business development manager.

“Because electricity is a commodity within a dynamic marketplace, the price can vary quite a lot; so a generator benefits the most from fixing a price when the market is high when it can get a better return. With this contract Westray has the flexibility of when to choose to fix its prices,” he says. “The market is fairly slow at the moment, but the long-term view is that the market will probably rise again.”

Community Energy Scotland, which has been instrumental in enabling Westray to achieve its plans, says the island is really at the start of a trend in community renewable projects springing up across the islands and West Scotland.

Eric Dodd, national projects manager, says: “We are currently working with about 30 other communities interested in setting up their own renewable projects. It is a huge achievement for Westray to have come this far. It has pushed a lot of barriers down.

“I would say to any other community interested in doing this, go into these projects with your eyes open because they can deliver terrific benefits, but not without a fair amount of hard work and community commitment.”

With the big turbine switch on due next week, all of the parties involved agree that Westray community has pulled off a great coup – and all for the benefit of the entire community.

Stephenson admits this is the next challenge. “The intention is that the income is not squandered away, but we have to put together our community development plan to organise how we channel the money back into the island,” he says.

It’s a challenge islanders will no doubt be relishing. After all, with the turbine expected to be in operation for at least 18 years, they can expect a sustainable income of millions of pounds over the coming years. 

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Getting down to business: one community's journey to self-sustainability
The wind turbine on Westray, which is going to generate hundreds of thousands of pounds for the community
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