Perhaps every Shetland community should have a Colin Dickie. Not only will he save you money, he helps the dirty Lerwick power station burn a little less diesel and belch a little less pollution while it keeps Shetland’s lights on.
His mission is to make life in Northmavine a bit better for its 800 inhabitants by cutting their electricity and oil bills, making old houses cosier and encouraging innovative renewable energy schemes to earn money for the community.
And he has a big idea that could open up money-spinning possibilities for the parish by overcoming the problems caused by the lack of a subsea power cable from Shetland to the National Grid – a weakness which has stopped any more wind turbines selling power into the islands’ grid because it cannot cope with the fluctuations in their output.
These positive activities come with his position as the Powerdown officer with Northmavine Community Development Company, funded for two years by the Scottish government to reduce the area’s carbon footprint by as much as 15 per cent. But he has also found himself involved, reluctantly at first, in the drive to boost local food production in the parish which appears to be a craze among locals of all ages with a clamour for plots in the 12 community polytunnels which are going up.
Having been in the job for over a year now, based at the NCDC’s offices in an old house at Barnafield, near Collafirth, Colin is past halfway in his contract. But there is so much good work to be done it would be unfortunate for the job to end before Northmavine has finished shaping itself a more sustainable future.
As if he did not have enough on his plate he also hopes to spend time in Fair Isle helping the new part-time Powerdown officer there, Angela Wiseman. The only other Powerdown officer is Mike Smith who works part-time in Unst.
At the age of 34 Colin has already been around and done a lot since growing up in Cullivoe and qualifying as a chemical engineer. At one point he and his brother had created the biggest rock-crushing company in the UK from small beginnings in Gutcher before the recession killed the construction industry stone dead and the boys’ company with it. He used to lecture at the fisheries college in Scalloway and once embarked on a venture with local IT entrepreneur Ken Beer and a billionaire in the United States to revolutionise communications at sea for merchant navy shipping at a time when making calls and sending data via satellite was hideously expensive. Unfortunately it never quite got off the ground.
High on his lengthy To Do list is this exciting idea of his which could see Northmavine folk act together as a community to help lead the country in wasting less energy while making money from generating their own power. Firstly, he hopes to persuade Scottish and Southern Energy to trial a so-called smart grid system in the parish using grants which are to be made available from the fossil fuel fund for renewables research. A smart grid seeks to even-out the peaks and troughs in people’s use of electricity, partly by offering much cheaper power when demand is low. It can also remotely switch on power-thirsty appliances, like washing machines, when demand is low and switch them off at peak times.
With little industry in Northmavine to place heavy demand on the power system, Mr Dickie believes it might be possible to get the consumption level enough that SSE could accept more renewable energy generators being plumbed into the grid – cue money-making ventures for the community. The emphasis would be put on hydro power which is a far smoother and constant source of power and which can be regulated to help meet rises in demand, which would suit the grid.
Hydro, of course, is nothing new in Shetland, having been channelled by our ancestors in hundreds of burn-side mills and more recently in Foula for power. Northmavine is a land of lochs and burns, already supplying the North Mainland and Sullom Voe with its water. Tests done for Community Energy Scotland by consultants IT Power on two burns have shown they could generate a total of 62 kiloWatts from micro-hydro schemes, potentially earning nearly £57,000 a year for the community. “It could make a real difference,” Colin said. The best source is reckoned to be the Burn of the Twa Roes at Collafirth.
Such regular income could be crucial to the future of NCDC, enabling it to continue doing good work for the community’s benefit, keeping on the other full-time worker, the NCDC co-ordinator and Shetland Times columnist Maree Hay, and part-timer Marie Smith.
“There’s a lot of ‘ifs’ there,” Colin admits, not least if he can get the population of Northmavine to change their lifelong habits of simply using electricity when they wish. “It’s a long shot – a very long shot,” he says of the ambitious plan. “But you have to keep trying.”
If Viking Energy ever does get its windfarm the advent of a power cable to the mainland would remove the barrier to all renewable sources in Shetland.
NCDC is also looking into tiny water power schemes, nano-hydro, which allows people to harness a small burn next to their house to produce perhaps 2-5kW – enough to heat their homes instead of erecting a wind turbine to do it. Colin said the technology was already well developed and had the added advantage over wind turbines of being more robust and reliable. He is hoping to get money for a trial this summer.
Away from the glamorous business of renewables, his basic task is to carry out home energy audits of many of the 330 houses in Northmavine with the aim of measuring heat loss and electricity usage to help people cut their electricity and fuel bills. It is time-consuming but, he says, very worthwhile. So far he has done approaching 70 homes after discarding the hopeless one-size-fits-all national questionnaire he was given and devising a more suitable one.
The owners of an old house he surveyed a few weeks ago should be able to save £676 a year due to better loft insulation (100 per cent grant-funded), underlay for the carpets which sat on concrete floors and by fitting better windows, although they couldn’t afford to replace them all. Colin told international delegates at a conference in Scalloway last month that the house had been losing 47,058 kiloWatt-hours of energy of which almost half (20,590kW) was escaping through the roof which had no insulation at all.
Many householders in Shetland now have digital meters for measuring and monitoring how much power they are using and what it costs them, allowing people to figure out for themselves where to cut down. They can be borrowed from Shetland Amenity Trust and some power companies have been offering them free to customers. NCDC lends them out too.
One person Colin spoke to on Friday claimed they had halved their electricity bill after the meter readings made them change their behaviour, such as switching off unnecessary electric fires and making sure doors are shut. They had been prompted into action after receiving a whopping bill. “It was a big eye-opener to them how much they had been using.”
Eventually, once more audits have been done, NCDC hopes to buy non-granted-aided materials like underlay and curtain lining in bulk to make it cheaper for those in the community who need it.
Even residents in modern houses can save money and cut waste. In one Northmavine household the power consumption never dipped below 600 Watts all day partly due to plasma screen TVs and hi-fis being left sitting on standby. It was “money thrown away”, he said, which we are always being told about but don’t take seriously. “They know all this but after I showed them what it really means in their circumstances, that’s when they listened.”
He also showed me a home-made gauge for outdoor oil tanks which are available from NCDC to help people learn how much their heating oil is costing at different periods. He says some are using old boilers which are less than 70 per cent efficient and need to be upgraded.
The polytunnel revolution is shaping up to be a heart-warming story for the future with huge interest and demand for plots in the 12 polytunnels, which measure 10 metres by four metres, and are going up very soon, the first in North Roe this month with others to follow in Ollaberry, Gluss, Sullom, Hillswick and Eshaness. Colin said he had been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm for growing food which he admits to having had little interest in to begin with.
He was amazed to discover that folk in Northmavine already produce at least 60 types of fruit and vegetable but perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the project is not the prospect of more bountiful and exotic harvests but the strong desire many people have to be involved just to be out and about among other people in the district, using the polytunnel as an unlikely social hub.
Even better is the mixing of the generations with grandparents asking if they can take their grandchildren along so they can pass on their old self-sufficiency skills and knowledge, having been missed out on by the generation in between which saw no need for the old ways. “I think that’s a great thing to be promoting,” Colin says.
So far Scottish Sea Farms has donated four tonnes of plastic walkways and feed pipes which will be used in constructing the tunnels, covered by polycarbonate sheeting 10mm thick, which is the tough material that bullet-proof glass is made from and should be far more resistant to the wild Shetland weather than polythene. The whole project is being paid for by the Climate Challenge Fund.
In return for allowing use of their ground for polytunnels the landowners get a free plot inside while everyone else has to pay a small annual fee.
So, will every community get a Colin Dickie to help repeat his success across the isles? There is no sign of it but perhaps Shetland Charitable Trust or one of its power companies like Viking Energy or Shetland Heat and Power could fund a team of Powerdown missionaries to turn Shetland into a ground-breaking low carbon community, making life cosier and cheaper at home and healthier for the planet.