Tuesday 21 July 2009

Hugh Piggott's Windpower 101

One thing that the British Isles does not lack is wind, especially on hills and western and northern coasts. As a result, wind farms are sprouting up all over the place, the most ambitious being that above Eaglesham Muir south of Glasgow, and an offshore one in the Solway Firth. An even larger farm, planned to cover almost the whole of the island of Lewis, has been rejected by government as too intrusive.

Robin Rigg Windfarm, Solway Firth (courtesy Carlisle Times and Star):

There are various problems with windfarms, apart from their visual and local environmental impact. The windiest places are usually sparsely inhabited, and so there is the problem of moving the electric potential from the place of generation to the place of consumption. There is also the problem of storage. It isn't windy all the time, and so excess electricity has to be stored somewhere, either in batteries or behind hydro-electric dams. The more we rely on windfarms, the more storage becomes a headache for power generators. But - with wind being free and everywhere, wouldn't it be great to generate your own electric from it?

With windpower all the rage these days, it is not surprising that the thoughts of ordinary punters turn to generating it themselves. Why not install a turbine, and sell the excess electricity generated back to the National Grid? With such thoughts in mind, I went to a morning talk at Earthship Fife by Hugh Piggott, perhaps Britain's foremost expert in home-build windpower.

Hugh Piggott (courtesy of Hugh):

Hugh lives in Scoraig, a tiny crofting community in an exposed location in the Northwest Highlands. There is no road to Scoraig - access is by boat - and it goes without saying that there is no mains electricity either. Fortunately Scoraig is very windy. It is the perfect place for a self-sufficient type to grow their own electricity.

Hugh's talk was illuminating. A couple of the people there were serious about building their own wind turbines. The rest were dilettantes like myself, and Hugh, though softly spoken, was completely and utterly hard-nosed practical.

"You said there was the possibility of hydro power at your location?"


"Then do that. It is much less hassle than wind power."

Hugh went on to describe the various pitfalls of wind power. The boring things like towers, batteries and converters are more expensive and important than the turbine itself, and if you can do something equivalent with less effort and more reliability, then that was the thing to do. I got the impression that if Hugh lived in a city he would insulate his loft, double-glaze his windows, wear an extra jersey, and leave the job done at that, glad to get the convenience of coal-fired electricity. He had done experiments in urban locations, including Edinburgh, and found that there wasn't the minimum level of average wind required to generate power at most of these locations. The companies who sell little rooftop wind turbines to well-meaning urban greens are, it seems, smooth-talking, snake-eyed charlatans.

So, not living at Scoraig or any other very windy location, it is water power for me. Anyone got a steep stream to experiment on?

Hugh's website:

Wednesday 15 July 2009

The Gathering

One lunchtime this week we went to the park round the corner from work for a game of touch rugby. But what was this? Fences and big tents! What's going on?

Apparently it is an event called The Gathering. "How long will the tents be up?" we enquired. "Three weeks" came the reply. Three weeks! For a couple of days of pipe bands! I hope it is worth it.

I suppose it will be, and I am just annoyed at missing out on lunchtime sport. There's more than just pipe bands. It would be good to see Alistair Moffat speaking, and the Battlefield Band are scheduled to play. They've written one of my favourite tunes - The Roving Dies Hard. What man, however happily settled, does not feel a stirring for distant horizons on hearing this song?

I'm Calum McLean, I'm a trapper to trade
And it's forty long years since I saw Tobermory
Through Canada's forests I've carried my blade
And its pine trees could tell you my story
Now my wandering days they are over
But I'm thankful to still be alive
For I've many's the kinsman who died in the hulks
At the end of the bold forty-five
I've an Indian lass now, I'll never deceive her
But there's nights when I'd up with my gun and I'd leave her
For the land where the bear and the fox and the beaver are lord
For the rovin' dies hard

It's the descendants of the likes of Calum McLean that the Homecoming events are designed for. I won't be at the gathering, but enjoy it if you go.

Thursday 2 July 2009

10 Years of Devolution

The Queen was at the Scottish Parliament yesterday meeting MSPs, and the media has run a few modest retrospectives of ten years of devolution, talking about the achievements of the new Parliament, founded in 1999 after a 1997 referendum in favour of devolution. These include banning smoking (EWaNI followed soon after) and hunting with dogs, and plans to abolish student tution fees and medical prescription fees. Gay marriage has been legalised, and the latest piece of legislation is a Climate Change Bill. There has also been a small, but noticeable shift of public focus towards Scottish approaches to issues, with Scottish MPs feeling a little purposeless and left out of many discussions.

The Scottish Parliament:

Outside it was a sunny day, and there were a few people milling about. Not many, and nobody seemed to have come to the awkward site at the bottom of the Royal Mile with the express purpose of celebrating devolution or seeing the Queen - as interviewed on TV, people (mainly tourists) seemed to have been passing by, wondered what all the fencing and security was about, and stopped for a gawk.

Let's be honest. The overwhelming feeling throughout Scotland about devolution is "meh." There was far more interest yesterday in Andy Murray's march to the Wimbledon semi-final, and, now it is recess, a third of MSPs didn't bother attending the celebrations. It reminiscent of the day after the referendum: Scots voted overwhelmingly in favour, and yet there was no great celebration, no great dream realised, no Barack Obama or toppling of the Berlin Wall to set things alight. There was more joy in 1997 when the Conservatives were booted out than after the devolution referendum.

Andy Murray yesterday:

Maybe it is just the character of the people in Scotland. If Scotland becomes independent, will there be at least one horn-hooting, Saltire-waving patriot on the streets with a tear in his eye? Or will Scots wake up the next morning, go to work as normal, and undemonstratively nod "aye" to each other, as they did for devolution?

Wednesday 1 July 2009

Poem: The Kirk o' Shotts

Driving along the M8 motorway between Edinburgh and Glasgow there are few landmarks of any note. It is arguably the least scenic road in Scotland, which is a shame as it is the most travelled. This is why there are a few art projects scattered along the route, like the Heavy Horse in North Lanarkshire, the Teletubbies-style horn at Harthill and the Pyramids in West Lothian.

However the landmark that catches my eye the most is the Kirk o' Shotts. This bare, simple box of a building sits on a spine of land above the M8, crowning the grey-clouded moors at the border between Lothian and Lanarkshire. It is a landmark like Muirkirk, a reminder of the austerity of the Scottish kirk, a place strong in the Covenanting tradition, a place that is an enduring symbol of a faith that is largely gone from this land.

The Kirk o' Shotts sits shivering on the spine
a hilltop box to conjure the divine
whose graves are mouldering away.

On road bypass, to commerce east and west
our cars drive fast, at baron boss bequest
with time growing shorter by the day.

Turn off the road and stop.
Consider the Kirk o' Shotts.