In our latest blog BSc Geography graduate Saskia Huxham gives us a summary of her dissertation: An in-depth study of the windy isle: Skye residents on transport, turbines and transitions to hydrogen.
I was lucky enough to be able to choose Skye as a case study for my undergraduate geography dissertation. It is one of my favourite places! In a world where we are becoming increasingly aware of climate change and our impacts on the environment, I thought it would be interesting to ask the residents of Skye and Raasay about their views on matters related to energy use. I was particularly interested in decarbonising transport in Scotland1, Skye’s windfarm developments and the future of hydrogen energy.
I posted an anonymous questionnaire in the various community Facebook groups (many of which were set up during the Covid pandemic) to promote participation from residents across all Skye regions. The project had a fantastic total of 170 participants and was representative of all populations in Skye’s regions! Residents made insightful suggestions about sustainable changes to individual actions, the tourist industry and guidance for renewable energy developers around community support and skills investment.
As pointed out by some participants, Highland and Island communities in Scotland are relatively insignificant producers of emissions on a global scale. However, isolated island communities such as Skye are of an ideal size to develop good practices for carbon-neutral infrastructure development. Islands such as Eigg and Orkney have developed independent energy grid strategies. Since 2008, Eigg has transitioned from diesel generators to a renewable energy grid2. Orkney has developed a local hydrogen economy since 2016 through EU funding known as the ‘BIG HIT’ green hydrogen project3.
Are electric vehicles suitable in rural environments?
Many residents highlighted specific Highland issues with electric vehicle (EV) ownership including poor battery lifespan, difficulty in towing trailers and livestock, frequent power cuts and worries about lack of trained engineers. With only nine ChargeScotland charging points for EVs on Skye regularly in service, the provision of charging points outside of Scotland’s main urban areas is poor. Without a good network of high-speed chargers, residents said they would be anxious about the limited driving range of EVs beyond the island. It is likely that private investment would be required to make the Scottish charging point network more accessible and widely available4.
The second highest concern was the cost of electric vehicles. This remains to be a significant problem despite Scottish Government incentives! There are some interesting initiatives developing such as the Sleat Peninsula EV car sharing scheme on Skye which was introduced in December 2021. Residents can book the community-owned EV for a specific trip such as a hospital appointment. Initiatives like these mean that community EV ownership could increase positive views towards EVs without the need for individual ownership. Skye residents were also aware that EVs provide a ‘stopgap’ solution to decarbonising transport, and that most EVs still take years to become carbon neutral. Another understandable concern was whether the electricity used for EVs would actually be entirely renewable and there were worries voiced about manufacturing sustainability due to the use of rare earth metals, such as lithium and neodymium, particularly without proper recycling schemes for batteries.
Electric vehicle charging point
The Highland Council and the pothole debacle
Some residents suggested that the Highland Council covers too large an area and that local priorities are not adequately addressed. Over half of the respondents were willing to contribute towards tax investments in road repairs, electric vehicle infrastructure and hydrogen bus transport – as long as these contributions were ringfenced for use on Skye only. A recent West Highland Free Press article5 highlighted the significant underfunding of Skye’s infrastructure system which is clearly seen through a multitude of pothole posts on the Facebook group ‘Fix Skye’s Roads’!
How can tourism help?
Some respondents thought there should be a campervan levy (e.g. £200), again to be ringfenced for community EV schemes, infrastructural improvements, electric/hydrogen shuttle buses, or other activities such as peatbog restoration, reforesting and the development of cycle tracks. As tourism is a major income stream for Skye, residents suggested that the revenue from any introduced tourist tax could be used to subsidise and incentivise public sightseeing (in small electric and hydrogen buses) or to perhaps improve the reliability and sustainability of public transport.
Wind turbines on Skye
Who should own Skye’s windfarms?
By 2030, the Scottish Government is targeting the equivalent of up to 1000 commercial wind turbines in community-owned onshore wind energy projects6! However, it has not been clearly described how this will be made possible… There has been a substantial increase in private windfarm developments in rural Scotland, but local concerns from residents in Highland communities have been overlooked on forty occasions (between 2016 and 20217). Consulting with local communities is a legal requirement in the windfarm planning process. Skye residents perceived that private windfarm company consultations were ‘tokenistic’ and that ‘nothing would change as a result’. Interestingly, 85% of the residents said that they had no knowledge of being consulted directly by a windfarm company. They also had very limited knowledge and awareness of the progress of future proposed windfarms such as Ben Sca or Glen Ullinish.
An alternative to private ownership is co-ownership of renewable energy projects. This involves agreements between community groups and private energy companies. Co-ownership can improve local knowledge and understanding about climate issues and can improve environmental education through, for example, local school projects. Reaching a consensus in mitigation policies for onshore windfarm developments in Scotland is certainly challenging! Company-community agreements are difficult to achieve without governmental guidance on how to direct charitable funding in community-owned or part-owned projects. Joint ventures for onshore Scottish windfarms8 – where the community part-owns the commercial windfarm and can vote in company activities – were by far the most preferable option chosen by the residents in my study, and they were against solely private company ownership models on Skye. Residents from across the island wanted more widespread community support from windfarm companies in the form of small-scale renewable projects, affordable and sustainable housing, lower electricity grid transmission charges and opportunities for renewable energy apprenticeships or related subjects in higher education.
But… What has hydrogen energy got to do with wind?
The supply of electricity to the British National Grid from Skye windfarms often exceeds demand due to high windspeeds, resulting in wind turbines being temporarily shut down. Apparently we can have too much wind! In the questionnaire, I suggested that instead of shutting the wind turbines down, surplus electricity during these times could be used to generate hydrogen from water electrolysis. Hydrogen can be produced through the electrolysis (splitting) of purified water into hydrogen and oxygen using the electricity generated by wind turbines. This already happens on Orkney3. Producing hydrogen through the electrolysis of purified water is better than using seawater as it avoids the production of by-products such as chlorine gas. It is possible to store hydrogen for later use, so this form of energy isn’t wasted. Through adaptation of current windfarm projects, there is great potential for wind-hydrogen hybrid projects to expand Scotland’s production and use of ‘green’ hydrogen (which is produced using renewable energy).
I was surprised to find that a large proportion of residents were very positive towards hydrogen as a fuel source, particularly when asked about the prospect of hydrogen buses, as many studies have previously found that the public is often negative and fearful about hydrogen without previous experience9,10. Over 60% of respondents associated hydrogen with the words ‘clean’ and ‘sustainable’, whilst less than 3% were fearful of explosions associated with hydrogen. Residents appreciated that electric vehicles alone would be insufficient to reach the Scottish Government’s transport target of net-zero emissions by 2045. A combination of approaches with renewable energy – both hydrogen and wind – would be a very positive step.
Some Skye residents mentioned that there should be a broader range of people included in critical areas of environmental decision-making. Informing and empowering residents would encourage communities to be proactive and set an example for climate activism. Having community wind-hydrogen projects and involving the local community could also encourage development of a skilled local workforce and could be transformative for Skye’s transport infrastructure.
Many thanks to all the residents who made this project happen! Their many insightful suggestions can help guide environmental decisions and support good practise by large energy providers not only on Skye but for the wider Highland regions. If you are interested in reading more about the project, you can download the dissertation from: https://www.energygeographies.org/dissertation-awards.
1Scottish Government. (2017) The future of energy in Scotland: Scottish energy strategy. Available at: https://www.gov.scot/publications/scottish-energy-strategy-future-energy-scotland-9781788515276/documents/. (Accessed: 23 April 2021).
2Gardiner, K. (2017) The small Scottish isle leading the world in electricity. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170329-the-extraordinary-electricity-of-the-scottish-island-of-eigg. (Accessed: 10 December 2022).
3OREF. (2020) Orkney hydrogen strategy. Available at: https://www.oref.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Hydrogen-Strategy.pdf. (Accessed: 14 January 2022).
4Transport Scotland. (2021) Report on public electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure in Scotland – opportunities for growth. Available at: https://www.transport.gov.scot/publication/report-on-public-electric-vehicle-ev-infrastructure-in-scotland-opportunities-for-growth/. (Accessed: 17 December 2021).
5Russell, M. (2023) Skye roads – island gets less than a fifth of what it needs. West Highland Free Press (2631), 3 February, p.1, 3.
6Scottish Government. (2019) Scottish Government good practice principles for shared ownership of onshore renewable energy developments. Available at: https://www.gov.scot/publications/scottish-government-good-practice-principles-shared-ownership-onshore-renewable-energy-developments/documents/. (Accessed: 15 December 2021).
7Maclennan, S. (2021) Wind farm objections in Highlands overruled on 40 occasions in past five years. [Online] Available at: https://www.northern-times.co.uk/news/anger-over-airbrushing-out-of-wind-farm-objections-224123/. (Accessed: 3 March 2022).
8Scottish Government. (2019) Scottish Government good practice principles for shared ownership of onshore renewable energy developments. Available at: https://www.gov.scot/publications/scottish-government-good-practice-principles-shared-ownership-onshore-renewable-energy-developments/documents/. (Accessed: 18 May 2022).
9Yetano Roche et al. (2010) Public attitudes towards and demand for hydrogen and fuel cell vehicles: a review of the evidence and methodological implications, Energy Policy, 38(10): pp.5301-5310. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421509001931 (Accessed: 19 March 2022).
10Ricci, M., Bellaby, P. and Flynn, R. (2008) What do we know about public perceptions and acceptance of hydrogen? A critical review and new case study evidence, International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, 33: pp.5868-5880. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360319908009609 (Accessed: 18 March 2022).