Westray, Powerful community

Powerful community
March, 2010

“To a man, everybody’s very excited about this turbine,” said Graham Maben, our driver and tour guide, whose other jobs include baker, café owner, church caretaker and fireman for the island’s airstrip. “All of the work that happens in a big city has to happen here, but in smaller doses, so everyone has more than one job,” he explains.

I’d come to Westray in the Orkney,Islands along with Relationship Manager Steve Moore and journalists from the Sunday Times and Social Enterprise magazine, to hear the story of Westray’s new wind turbine and the community behind it. While other Scottish communities have developed their own sources of sustainable energy, including Triodos customers the Isle of Eigg and the Isle of Gigha, Westray are the first to have developed a new, full scale community owned turbine. 

The project’s roots lie in a need to address the island’s depopulation. Fifteen years ago just 550 people lived on Westray, down from a peak of over 2,000 a century before. The decline, caused in part by the reduced numbers involved in the  traditional fishing and farming industries, was a serious threat to the survival of island life. If the number of inhabitants continued to drop, providing essential services such as doctors and schools would become untenable, creating a vicious circle and driving down the population further.

Following an island conference to address the problem Westray Development Trust was born. Established in 1998, it set about developing services which would help ensure the community’s survival. Initiatives have ranged from establishing a playground for the isle’s youngest inhabitants and campaigning for a care  home for its eldest. The human impact of these projects is huge. Beforehand the nearest nursing home was on the Orkney mainland, meaning people needing care would be separated from the island and their families by a 90 minute ferry journey.   

A wind turbine offered the chance to capture Westray’s most abundant natural resource and provide an income for the Development Trust’s vital work. Westray Renewable Energy Ltd was set up by the Trust to move the project from dream to reality, with its six volunteer diectors carrying out the work.

With all the money made being reinvested to support the island’s needs, the local people were firmly behind the project. “When the community realised it was their turbine, not someone else’s, there was no objection,” says Westray Renewable Energy’s Alasdair McVicar.

Early challenges ironically included too much wind. But while average wind speeds were above the maximum for the turbine design, low levels of turbulence meant the project could go ahead.

A second hurdle of financing the project was also overcome. A grant from the Big Lottery Fund and support from the local council provided around half of the money, and finance from Triodos Bank made up the rest, following a recommendation from Community Energy Scotland. As well as Westray, the sustainable energy development charity is working with around 30 other Scottish communities interested in setting up their own renewable projects.

“I’ve probably spoken to Steve Moore as many times as to my wife in the past year,” says Westray Renewable Energy director David Stephenson. “It’s more of a partnership than a traditional customer supplier relationship”.

“When there were difficulties, we were able to get through them together. It’s about the bank understanding our point of view and seeing what they can go back and do to make the problems go away.”

The turbine is now up and running and is already creating an income for the community. Westray Development Trust hope earn £100,000 each year from the clean energy they generate initially, which will rise to over £200,000 annually over the course of the turbine’s life. The money will help support more initiatives on Westray, including further development of the learning centre and a project to fight fuel poverty.

There’s a certain rugged splendour to Westray’s new turbine as it reaches into the low morning cloud. But its true beauty lies in how it’s protecting the lifeblood of one of the UK’s most remote communities.

Visit www.orkneycommunities.co.uk/westray or call 01857 677 789 for more.