Community / Five years of reliable 24/7 power in Fair Isle

The current Fair Isle electricity scheme was introduced around five years ago.

HAVING power round the clock is something taken for granted by most people – but it was only until five years ago that there was a reliable 24/7 supply in Fair Isle.

It was five years ago yesterday (Thursday), in fact, that the new system on the island was formally launched.

The system consisted of three new 60kW wind turbines, a solar array with a capacity of around 50kW and battery storage capable of holding 50 hours of power.

The three-mile long island with a population of around 50 had used a combination of wind and diesel power since the 1980s, but it had been lights out between 11.30pm and 7.30am on nights when wind turbines were not turning.

The two previous turbines had also suffered technical problems, with one ultimately shutting off completely, while there was no capacity for any new customers.

The project, led by Fair Isle Electricity Company, cost £3.5 million and was supported by funders including the Scottish Government, Highlands and Island Enterprise and Shetland Islands Council.


Local resident Eileen Thomson, who grew up in the isle, said it has been a “huge boost” to quality of life and brought the community in line with other parts of the country.

One benefit was that her house can now be heated at night if needed, as her boiler uses electricity.

Before, she said, it was “freezing” at night.

“Another benefit is how much greener we are as a community,” Thomson added.

“We use far less diesel fuel for generators than we did before. Often wind and solar panels are enough to power the whole isle for weeks at a time.”

Marie Bruhat, who runs a knitwear business from Fair Isle, said the new set-up has been “brilliant”.

The Fair Isle community. Photo: National Trust for Scotland

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“It makes life so much easier,” she said. “We are very thankful for it.”

Fair Isle Electricity Company director Robert Mitchell said the new system has made a difference to everyone’s life on the island, which is located between mainland Shetland and Orkney.

There have been some issues with the system, “but nothing that’s not insurmountable”. This includes the usual breakdowns, although these bring extra challenges due to Fair Isle’s location.

He also believed that the promises given in the early stages about the level of back-up were “hollow”. “We’ve had to do a lot of it ourselves,” Mitchell said.

He added that the reduction in diesel has been one of the biggest highlights of the new system.

“Our diesel consumption has gone way, way down,” Mitchell said. “With the cost of diesel going up so much, we’ve managed to keep our prices down on the island in comparison to the rest of the country.”


He explained that under the old set-up diesel generators would run most of the day up to 11.30pm, “and if we had enough wind power overnight then windmills would take the load”.

But when there was a major fault on one of the two old turbines, the other one was not big enough to cope with Fair Isle’s demand.

David Parnaby, who is the chair of the local community association, said having reliable 24-hour power has resulted in simple benefits like being able to watch films to the end, or being able to work on the computer at any time.

“It has been a very important development for the future of the isle overall though,” he said.

“We’re hoping to attract new folk to live in the isle just now, and people expect 24-hour power.


“It also shows that we’re a thriving, forward-thinking community; Fair Isle values its history, but it’s not a museum and it’s not stuck in the past.

“We’re very thankful to all the work put in by the everyone involved with the Fair Isle Electricity Company and to the funders who contributed to the project.”

Fair Isle is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, and its regional director for the Highlands and Islands, Clea Warner, said having reliable round-the-clock power was important for the future of the island.

“The sustainability of the community in Fair Isle depends on people being able to – and wanting to – live and work there,” she said.

“So, the introduction of guaranteed 24/7 power five years ago, through a community initiative, was an important milestone for the community and for National Trust for Scotland, which is privileged to own and support Fair Isle.


“So, yes, this five-year anniversary is well worth celebrating because it made a real difference to everyone there, but even more important now is to keep on developing Fair Isle’s infrastructure to support a thriving community – as is happening with the current projects to install full-fibre broadband on Fair Isle, rebuild the Fair Isle Bird Observatory, and ensure infrastructure is in place for a new and improved ferry service.”

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