Scraggy Scoraig

Scoraig is not your usual British community; it is not even your usual Highlands community. In fact, living on Scoriag is fundamentally different to life almost everywhere else in the UK. Scoraig was almost completely abandoned by the traditional crofting families who used to live here. It has been re-settled over the last 50 years by those who have woken up to the unsustainability of modern living and decided to take the plunge and live away from it all on one of the most remote corners of the British Isles. There is no connection to the National Grid, nor the water mains and neither are there any roads connecting it to the rest of the UK (access is by boat across Little Loch Broom and there are no scheduled ferries). As a result, the people of Scoraig need to obtain the majority of their own food, water and energy from the peninsula itself.

The transformation of the inhabited parts of Scoraig over the last half a century has changed what was a barren, isolated and windswept peninsula into a barren, isolated and windswept peninsula with series of sheltered, green and hospitable enclaves. Hugh’s house is in the centre of the largest of these enclaves on the southwest of the peninsula and is surrounded by luscious gardens and beautiful vistas down the loch towards the foreboding Scottish Highlands. The house is warm, comfortable and equipped with all the conveniences of modern living. They drink the rainwater that falls on the roof (there’s a lot of it in Northwest Scotland), eat the fish from the sea, the animals from the fields and the vegetables from the garden (supplemented by Tesco as and when necessary) and generate their own energy from a combination of wind and solar (with the occasional boost from a diesel generator). This transformation was made possible by the hard work and adoption of sensible, sustainable practices by Hugh, his family and the other members of the community. The relationship between the wind and the trees is the best example of this transformation as it was the wind that made Scoraig such an inhospitable place for the original crofters over 50 years ago, whipping across the peninsula from the Atlantic Ocean and scouring the landscape down to the heather. Although some trees and bushes existed when the crofters first arrived almost 200 years ago, they were swiftly cut down and used for firewood or construction. When the newcomers arrived in the sixties and seventies, they planted new trees and when they eventually took root they provided not only firewood and materials for building, but also shelter for crops to grow and for people to live in comfort. Today, wind turbines are placed strategically above or away from the trees to harness this powerful source of energy and generate clean, renewable energy for Scoraig’s inhabitants.

Hugh has a degree in mathematics from Cambridge University and other Scoraig residents were quantity surveyors or researchers in their previous lives. It therefore comes as no surprise that the solutions that these highly educated free-thinkers have come up with to improve their standards of living without damaging the environment in this remote corner of the UK are just as useful for remote communities in developing countries. The experience gained by living with the technology they have developed during every single day of the year has been invaluable in ironing out any design flaws and ensuring that the product evolved into something that adequately met their needs. Hugh has lived on the electricity produced by his wind turbines for over 30 years and as a direct result of this, the machines that he has developed are truly appropriate for local manufacture in rural areas and are now providing electricity to thousands of others around the world.

Whoops! Isn’t that supposed to be up there?

Wind turbines can be used to provide electricity to remote communities in the developing world, but are they always the most sustainable solution? This photo illustrates the problem perfectly – a wind turbine manufactured locally in Peru and installed at a school in an Andean community at around 3,500m above sea level. I am holding a broken blade that flew off of the turbine, in part due to a design flaw, but also due to a lack of maintenance. My research focusses on seeing a wind turbine installed in a community as a socio-technical system where issues such as who performs maintenance and how a service network is set up are seen as equally important as the technology itself.

The electricity produced by wind turbines can be used to refrigerate vaccines at a health post, provide light for evening classes at a school or allow somebody to start a business charging mobile phones. However, if the wind turbine is out of service for a significant period of time then the vaccines will go off, the evening classes will be cancelled and the business will have gone bust. In Peru I worked with two non-governmental organisations, WindAid and Soluciones Prácticas to track what had happened to all of the wind turbines they had built after they had been installed, i.e. what had broken, why, and how long the machine been down for.

One of the key issues emerging from the study was the need to transfer knowledge to the recipient community, not just technology. By their very definition, remote places are difficult to access, and therefore the importance of training community members on the operation and maintenance of their new wind power system becomes even more important.

Hello world!

About a year and a half after deciding I should start blogging about my research, I’ve finally got around to making it happen. I hope to post up all the exciting things (and probably some not so exciting things too) I’ve been up to in my quest to find out under which circumstances can locally manufacturing small wind turbines provide a sustainable solution for rural electrification. If you’re interested in this topic, but find this blog a bit boring, then definitely check out Hugh Piggott‘s because honestly, his is much better and that’s where the inspiration for this one came from!!