Island generates sustainable future

Published in The Financial Times 15 April 2008

By Andrew Bolger, Scotland Correspondent


Cutting edge initiatives may not generally be associated with the Orkney Islands, whose sleepy pace of life tends to attract more holiday makers than policy makers.

But Westray, the largest of Orkney’s northern isles, is attempting something never before tried in the UK. In just four years it aims to become the first community to produce the equivalent of all of its energy needs from renewable sources.

Developing renewable energy is a key object of the Westray Development Trust, which was created in 1998 in an attempt to stem the brain drain from the island.

Now, while its population still stands at a meagre 600, the number is rising and the trust feels the island “has turned the corner”, according to William McEwen, one of the trust’s founders.

Sandy McEwen, who with her husband has refurbished several historic buildings on the island, is in no doubt that the commitment to sustainability is luring newcomers and helping to safeguard Westray’s future. “We are attracting creative people – painters and jewellery makers – and protection of the environment is very important to them,” she said.

A maths teacher at the island’s high school, Mr McEwen has created Orkney Bio-Fuels, which makes bio-diesel from used cooking oil collected from hotels, pubs, restaurants and chip shops. As well as supplying the islanders with cheap green fuel, the venture makes a modest income for the trust – enough, it is hoped, to hire a full-time employee.

Another idea of Mr Mc-Ewen’s is an electric taxi for Westray’s elderly and disabled residents. It is about to enter service after receiving funding from ScottishPower and the government. Wind turbines will charge the pollution-free vehicle’s battery.

A care centre for the island’s elderly has wind turbines and a ground source heat pump. A youth centre is partly heated by a 2.5kilowatt wind turbine since it opened eight years ago.

Lorna Brown, a youth development worker, said: “It’s great that our young people use electricity generated from the wind at their own youth centre. They are growing up with renewables and that can only be good for the long-term future of our island.”

Westray-based company Heat and Power aims to be the first company in Scotland to turn cattle slurry into fuel for cars. Colin Risbridger, the chartered engineer behind the initiative, is working on using silage and cattle waste. “Who knows? We could see every farm becoming either a filling station or a power station in the future,” he said.