On a remote Scottish island, this man uses tech to build renewable energy support

By Ross Gillies
August 30, 2021

This story is part of TechConnect, a series about how Facebook’s tech innovations and investments help people build deeper connections, and community.

Raasay is a small Scottish island. We have 170 people, but only about 35 of us are under the age of 30. Located between the Isle of Skye and the Scottish mainland, Raasay is 13 miles long and three miles wide. The only way to get here is by ferry. Our main industry is tourism. Given our remote location, size, and demographic, we’re always looking for other income sources.

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The hydropower programs — generators that can harness the power of the many streams running through Raasay — have been in the works for about seven years. Long before I got involved, the entire community was exploring renewable energy options. Back then, the United Kingdom’s government had an initiative called a “Feed in Tariff,” through which public or private organizations could receive money for generating renewable forms of energy and selling it to the National Grid.

Here in Raasay, if we can build two hydro programs capable of producing about 137 kilowatts of power, then we can sell it to the National Grid. And, in turn, we can earn an estimated £2.27 million (about $3.2 million USD) in gross revenue over 20 years, which would help infrastructure and provide more services to residents.

It was difficult getting the idea off the ground. As a community-operated project, there were a lot of different factors to consider. It’s not like there’s a private owner who can make every decision. We must consult with everyone, and that can slow things down. 

To raise the money, we didn’t turn to private investors. Banks had been approached in the past, but interests were misaligned. In 2017, we got close to building the hydro program. Then the whole thing collapsed because of a bunch of factors, including funding, and, at that point, it looked dead in the water. But we were fortunate to get a sizable grant for £300,000 ($416 million USD) from Scottish and Southern Energy as part of a rural development fund. We still needed another £650,000 ($905 million USD) to get the hydro programs going.

Around this time, Rosie MacLeod and I joined as directors of Raasay Community Renewable. While we didn’t start the organization, we’re from the island, and I’d been involved in the program since 2017. I’m a civil engineer, Rosie studied mechanical engineering, and Ross Camilli is about to complete his degree in mechanical engineering. We came back to help raise money and guide the project.

The idea was to use crowdfunding to obtain the money we needed. There are other hydro programs similar to ours that successfully used this funding model. Rather than donations, we asked people to invest in something called “community shares.” It’s like a loan. We’ll pay 4% in maximum annual interest for their investment. Over the next 20 years, we’ll also pay back the initial investment.

In January 2020, we turned to Facebook Groups to publicize our fundraising effort. Besides raising awareness about hydro power, we used the Facebook Group to show people that this was an investment opportunity. By early March, we hit our goal of £650,000. We have around 400 investors from around the world, with an average investment of roughly £1,000. I think the interactivity of our Group pages resonated. Social media is the way people get local news these days. The Isle of Raasay’s Community Facebook page is where you find out everything worth knowing, such as the ferry schedule. Look around, and you can see that people are always on their phones.

People also got behind the fact that Ross, Rosie, and I came home to do this. Followers and community members really like the story of three young folks who have been raised on an island, returning to try to make a difference. The intractability of technology was so crucial to connecting people to our project. I don’t know how we would have made this happen without it.

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