Reflections on my visit to Shetland and Orkney

I’ve always known that the decarbonisation of Scotland can never happen through a one-size fits all approach. My recent trip to Shetland and Orkney reinforced this view, reminding me how diverse our country is and the need for sensitivity to local contexts and environments.

Respecting difference ensures best practice, whether by understanding the unique challenges facing a community and housing stock or learning from the great work that’s already taking place there.

I’ve seen plenty of both during my time up north and wanted to share a little of that more widely.

Shetland

In Lerwick, I met with both councillors and staff from Shetland Islands Council, Hjaltland Housing Association Ltd, Shetland Heat Energy & Power, and Shetland Heatwise, as well as our own Home Energy Scotland team who live and work on the islands.

There were numerous conversations about the obstacles that Shetland faces when it comes to decarbonizing. In particular they face higher energy costs than in other parts of Scotland, a very limited certified supply chain, and the more extreme weather causes a lower lifespan of certain measures as well as unique needs to building fabrics.

Shetland’s average annual maximum temperature is 9.6C, which is more than one degree colder than Scotland, and I felt privileged to experience the “normal” 50+ mph winds through my travels. 

Further north in Shetland, on the islands of Yell and Unst, I met with the Unst Partnership Limited and North Yell Development Council. I heard about the levels of fuel poverty in these communities, where keeping warm is unaffordable for many.

Warmer Homes Scotland is delivering good work to support these residents, but the fuel poverty figures are still higher in these communities than in the rest of the UK.

Orkney

The second half of my trip took me to Orkney. In Kirkwall I spoke to Warmworks about their delivery of Warmer Homes Scotland and the Scottish Government’s Energy Efficiency Scotland: Area Based Scheme (EES:ABS). Measures installed as part of these schemes will help people stay warm whilst making their bills more affordable.

I also received a demo of some new tech from Connected Response Limited. Their system gives people smarter control over their electric storage heaters, avoiding the common problem of running out of heat before the evening, as well as ensuring they are purchasing electricity when it is cheapest to do so. 

In Stromness I met Laura Hutton at the Islands Centre for Net Zero (ICNZ). This project will decarbonise Orkney, Shetland, and the Outer Hebrides by working with local communities and business for a ‘ground up’ approach.

When meeting Islanders at the county show I also got to catch up with Alistair Carmichael (MP for Orkney & Shetland), Liam McArthur (MSP for Orkney), as well as the teams at Aquatera and ReFLEX Orkney. I heard more about the challenges that islanders are facing when it comes to both fuel bills and trying to decarbonize, as well as some of the innovative solutions being piloted across Orkney.

Back to Edinburgh

I’ve arrived back in Edinburgh more aware of both the obstacles and opportunities that present themselves in Orkney and Shetland.

Issues with the supply chain are particularly stark: in many Scottish geographies, there’s only one accredited installer for renewable technology or insulation. The form of that technology also needs to be broadened.

Whilst much of the public narrative is rightly focusing on the amazing efficiency and opportunities heat pumps provide to decarbonise heating, to retrofit at scale we need to also champion a wider pool of solutions such as district heating, infrared, and air-to-air heat pumps, all of which are proving effective on the islands when used in the right context.

In terms of opportunities, Shetland is already far ahead of much of the UK in terms of adaptation and Orkney produces 110% of its energy locally, which has required plenty of creativity when it comes to generation.  

All in all, it’s been an incredibly valuable trip. I’d like to thank everyone I met for the warm welcome and all the hard work that they do. Working together, I know we can reach the goal of a just transition, ensuring low-carbon living for everyone across Scotland.  

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