Modern energy services such as gas, electricity and other fuels (e.g. for cooking or transport) are crucial for human wellbeing and to a country’s economic development. Energy poverty refers to the lack of, or limited access to, modern energy facilities, and the adverse effects this can have on the health, wellbeing and prospects of local populations. The economic progress of many developing countries is hindered by the lack of energy, but the problem also occurs much closer to home. Many UK communities, particularly in remote areas, experience energy poverty either by being unable to afford the high costs, or being unable to access these services. Fuel poverty is defined as when a household is required to spend 10% or more of the household income on all household fuel use. Extreme fuel poverty is where the household is required to spend more than 15%.
Island life off the coast of Scotland presents communities with many challenges. In the Shetland Isles, 1 in 15 people are income deprived, half of all households are in fuel poverty and food parcels have trebled since 2010. According to the Scottish House Condition Survey, 13% of Shetlanders live in extreme fuel poverty. Shetland’s climate, in particular the lower average temperatures, mean households need to have the heating on for a higher proportion of the year than elsewhere in the UK. It is estimated that Shetlanders need twice the national average of energy per home. Added to this the Highlands and Islands are subject to higher energy tariffs and a lack of alternative heating sources such as solar power.
The islands of Orkney and Shetland, alongside the Western Isles of Scotland, rely heavily on expensive diesel imports for power. Communities in these areas are therefore left with substantial and often unaffordable energy costs. The Lerwick Power Station, commissioned in 1953, uses imported diesel to generate electricity, and is the primary source of electricity for the island. It is now reaching the end of its useful life and therefore this solution is no longer sustainable.
In Shetland, electricity supply to customers has to be met instantaneously by a response in electricity generation. This means that electricity is being consumed at the same rate it is being produced, which could potentially lead to power shortages and blackouts if there is a sudden increase in demand. Lerwick Power Station currently supplies roughly 41% of the island’s energy, making it the principal electricity source for the islands. As the diesel fuel needed by the power station is imported from the UK mainland, the facility is expensive to run and often struggles to meet peak demand. With diesel prices sometimes reaching £1.50 per litre, many of those who cannot afford the high prices of energy are left to burn solid fuels such as logs and coal in their homes.
Wind power offers a potential solution to this problem, due to the frequent high winds experienced by the islands. Renewable energy facilities are cheaper to construct and maintain than fossil fuel plants, and offer considerable cost savings to communities, allowing for improved quality of life in areas where energy poverty is common.
The Burradale wind farm on Shetland is considerably more effective than other UK wind farms, and it is hoped through a partnership with energy suppliers, central government and the Shetland community, more renewable energy resources will be developed on the island. However, concerns have been raised about the reliability of wind power, as batteries capable of storing large volumes of energy are still in development.
With many people around the world struggling with energy poverty, new methods must be urgently developed to increase economic growth in outlying regions and improve quality of life within these communities. A long-term solution is needed in order to reduce the reliance on imported fuels as well as produce electricity at an affordable and sustainable price. By doing this, Shetlanders and other outlying regions can free themselves from energy poverty.