Islanders celebrate the year of the big switch to reliable electricity

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The Independent Online

Time passes slowly on the remote island of Foula. Today the islanders, who still adhere to the old Julian calendar, instead of the Gregorian system adopted by Britain in 1752, will usher in the first day of 2005 - and the beginning of a new year which should see their households brought into the 21st century.

Time passes slowly on the remote island of Foula. Today the islanders, who still adhere to the old Julian calendar, instead of the Gregorian system adopted by Britain in 1752, will usher in the first day of 2005 - and the beginning of a new year which should see their households brought into the 21st century.

For the past 20 years or so, the residents have had to rely on an expensive and temperamental diesel generator to provide just enough electricity for most of their needs during daylight hours. The ageing technology has become so unreliable that it can take three days to complete a single spin cycle on a washing machine and the system can break down when there is a rush to put the kettle on in more than a few houses at a time.

But, provided all goes according to plan, the island's 16 homes, which provide shelter for a population of just 25 people, will have all the energy they need after switching to a £1m system that uses a combination of wind energy, hydro-electric power and solar panels.

"The diesel generator has now fallen into disrepair and as the population has declined ... there are not enough able-bodied people to maintain the system," said Malcolm Miller, an electrical engineering consultant hired by the Foula Electricity Trust to instigate the island's energy revolution.

"Running a diesel generator is a very expensive way of producing energy for a very small number of people. The unit cost of electricity has gone up so much we have reached a level of fuel poverty on the island."

Now, thanks to various grants from the Lottery Fund, the Scottish Executive, Shetland Council, Highland and Island Enterprise and the EU, the crofters will soon have a newsystem for their tiny island, which lies 12 miles west of Shetland.

Mr Miller said that the project, due to start in May, would involve a sophisticated battery bank to store energy supplied by a combination of solar panels, wind turbines and a hydro-electric scheme - all backed up by a new diesel generator for those rare cloudy days when the sun doesn't shine and there are no hurricane-like winds or driving rain.

The funding for the photovoltaic element of the scheme, which will include an array of solar energy technology panels fitted to the community hall roof, is being provided by the Department of Trade and Industry in an attempt to demonstrate to other communities that sun-based renewable energy schemes can work effectively.

For the past few months the islanders have been planning their project in a way that will safeguard the island's natural heritage, which is so exceptionally rich and diverse that it is designated as a Special Protection Area for birds and a National Scenic Area and Site of Special Scientific Interest for its plants, birds and geology.

Home to the world's largest colony of great skuas, along with kittiwakes, arctic terns and red-throated divers, the island's spectacular cliffs also teem with puffins, guillemots, razorbills, shags, fulmars, gannets, Leach's petrel, storm petrel, and Manx shearwater - making it a prime destination for naturalists and eco-tourism.

However, without the basic amenity of 24-hour electricity there is little scope to offer visitors from the rest of the UK and abroad the home comforts that the vast majority would expect.

"This new power source will give the islanders a firm foundation to invest in the future of the island and possibly even attract new people to live here or just visit," said Mr Miller.

In the 19th century, when herring and mackerel fishing were at their peak, Foula used to have a population in the hundreds but by the 1960s it was down to fewer than 70 and has continued to fall ever since.

For Isobel Holbourn, who has lived on the island since 1956, the prospect of a reliable 24-hour electricity supply is an important first step in improving Foula's fortunes and possibly attracting new blood.

"I remember when there was no running water and no electricity, just peat fires and oil lamps." she said.

"What we have now is a vast improvement on those times and what we are going to have is much better still.

"Today is New Year's Day on Foula - when we always have a great party, but this year it will be bigger than ever.

"The prospect of a reliable supply of electricity 24-hours a day is very exciting, let's hope it is the start of a brighter future for us all."

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