Iona’s heat plans light the way for a greener nation
Iona holds a unique place in Scottish hearts. St Columba founded the abbey in 563, bringing Christianity to Scotland. Plundered by Vikings, it nonetheless established itself as a centre of learning and spirituality, and is considered far removed from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
It is far from it. As global policymakers head for Glasgow for Cop26 in November the community on Iona are pioneers in the climate crisis. The vision is simple: to decarbonise the island’s heat supply and renew the fabric of its buildings through a ground-source heat network, extracting energy from boreholes sunk almost 200 metres deep.
The project would stop 230 tonnes of CO2 emissions every year and enable the community to maintain a secure, affordable heating supply. It would also boost revenue, skills, businesses and employment.
The network is shovel-ready after five years of work by indefatigable islanders who have faced down every hurdle. Infrastructure projects in remote places invariably cost more than equivalent mainland initiatives, but even the seismic ruptures of Brexit and Covid-19 have been no match for islanders’ determination. By 2020 the government had confirmed that the heat network was “the optimal solution” for Iona.
The project was poised for installation last year when the pandemic caused costs of drilling and heat pumps to spike. Under the old Renewable Heat Incentive, these costs were required to be funded by loans that became unaffordable overnight. That subsidy is now gone and there is no scheme to replace it. There are arrangements for funding streams in England and Wales, but Scotland risks being left behind.
The Scottish government is committed to heat networks, but these meet 1 per cent of demand, against a target of 18 per cent. This year a draft strategy was published, including a £1.6 billion spending commitment during this parliament to promote low carbon heat and energy efficiency in homes and businesses. That plan affirms that “a just transition puts people, communities and places at the heart of our approach to climate change action”, and the Iona initiative gives ministers an opportunity to turn its rhetoric into reality. Iona is going green. It’s a story Scotland should be proud to share with the world.
Malcolm Robertson is a strategic communications executive and founding partner of Charlotte Street Partners.