By RYAN TAYLOR
Foula’s long-running quest to abandon its antiquated power supply in favour of a more eco-friendly hydro-electric system providing round the clock energy has finally come to fruition.
The £1 million project offering a combination of turbine and solar power was launched last week following a lengthy five year gestation period.
It replaces the island’s dilapidated diesel generators, which proved inefficient and unreliable over the last 20 years, and only offered power for 12 hours out of every day casting residents into darkness at night.
Seeing the project through have been members of the Foula Electricity Trust, including West Side councillors Frank Robertson and Florence Grains.
Mr Robertson said the scheme had taken a long time to develop, but was well worth the wait.
“We decided that we would look at running a scheme to replace the old system. The price of diesel wasn’t too bad back when we started, but they were only getting 12 hours a day out of it. During the night they were getting no electricity.”
The new scheme will produce power with the help of two photo-voltaic solar panels, designed to produce electricity directly from sunlight.
Developers had to wait patiently for planning officials to go through the proposals, which have finally permitted the development of a storage system powered by 90 batteries.
A pipeline has also been installed one kilometre from the Lochs o’ Da Fleck while a new weir and damn were built at the Ouvrafandal Loch to the south east of Fleck.
The move allows for a continuous supply of hydro electric power as long as there is plenty of water.
But while residents now have easy access to a reliable power-source, getting the new system up and running has been far from easy.
Earlier plans for a larger wind power generator were scotched by the RSPB, concerned that Foula’s red-throated divers which nest on the lochs could be endangered by the turbines.
Foula is a site of special scientific interest, and also plays host to large numbers of bonxies and Arctic skuas.
Another non-starter was a popular idea to stretch a sub-sea cable from Walls to Foula.
The trust approached Scottish and Southern Energy, which came up with an eye-watering estimate of £4.5 million to put the cable across.
Despite the setbacks, plans are also underway to develop a network of four to five small wind turbines which will provide power in the drier summer months.
“If we had that Foula would be totally self-sufficient in power and renewable energy,” said Mr Robertson.
The trust has been in close contact with conservationists and special bird surveys have been carried out to minimise the impact any future turbine development would have on the wildlife.
Mr Robertson said plans for the new wind turbines were “at the planning stage” and visits had been made to Foula in the summer to find suitable sites that would avoid disrupting bird colonies.
Scottish Natural Heritage, which has also been involved in the process, hopes the initial hydro system could prove so effective the wind turbines may only occasionally be called into service.
Mr Robertson added the development offered clear benefits to those living on the island.
He said the trust now had the freedom to claim renewable obligation certificates for the production of renewable electricity, which he said could be a source of “substantial income” for Foula.
Logistically, installing the system has proved to be something of a challenge.
Mr Robertson said laying the pipes for the hydro system had been a major operation for which helicopters were at one point considered as a suitable mode of transport.
Since the work was carried out, however, contractor Malakoff Ltd has done a “sterling job” at reinstating the land where ever it had gone.
“Florence and I went up there last summer and we could hardly see a mark on the ground.”
The move has even provided a small jobs boost for the island.
While Malakoff engineers will carry out heavy operational work on the system, simpler maintenance jobs will be done by a handful of folk already on the island.
The real delay, however, has come from getting funding in place.
Mr Robertson said he saw it as being “very important” the development did not languish on the council’s expansive capital programme list.
He was delighted the money had been donated, with a substantial chunk of it coming from the Big Lottery fund.
“It’s all been funded by external funding. We approached the Big Lottery and they were extremely co-operative. They sent up one of their young engineers and he thought it was excellent.
“He went away back down south and we got an offer of £200,000 for a scheme which was for the benefit of the community.”
Work on the scheme finally came to an end in November last year, since when engineers have been “fine-tuning” it in order to get it finally up and running.
It was also inspected last year by the SNP’s finance secretary John Swinney during a visit to the isles.