A low-carbon district heating system in Wick is helping hundreds of households avoid the worst excesses of energy poverty – and its operators believe it can be scaled up further.
The sustainable energy center owned by Ignis Wick Ltd provides heating and hot water to around 200 homes in the Pulteneytown area as well as Caithness General Hospital and meeting rooms, and it provides steam at the adjacent Pulteney Distillery.
Ignis burns approximately 700 tonnes of locally sourced woodchips each month and the heat is distributed through a 10.5 km network of underground pipes.
“In terms of savings, that’s huge compared to gas and oil in today’s market,” said director Harris Gilmore. “Some people might pay more, some might pay less, but the average cost to customers is around £500 a year for their hot water and heating.”
There may be room for expansion of the biomass regime, depending on the level of interest.
Mr. Gilmore explained: “For us, it’s about measuring interest. If I generate substantial interest, that will be a good indicator that we really need to do something about it.
Highland local councilor Raymond Bremner believes the opportunities are worth exploring. In a context of exploding bills and a volatile energy market, he asks the community to study different options for investing in sustainable energy in order to alleviate the financial pressure on consumers and reduce precariousness. energy.
Councilor Bremner accepted an invitation to visit the Ignis base in Albert Street in Wick the day after Mr Gilmore spoke with members of the local community council at their March meeting.
“I have requested that a document be presented to council to explore opportunities and potential,” Councilor Bremner said.
“We would really like to make sure that this helps low-income people, who are affected by energy poverty, who are in deprived areas of the city. But at the same time, we know that to maximize the marketability of it, you wouldn’t want it to be limited to that.
“We can’t keep saying, ‘Yes, we understand fuel poverty, we understand deprivation’, and not be seen as making big decisions and big steps to be able to alleviate that.
“I think within Wick we have a real opportunity to do that. One of the answers to the problem seems to be on our doorstep.
Ignis took over the district heating scheme – formerly Caithness Heat and Power – from Highland Council a decade ago and began supplying heat to homes in Pulteneytown as well as the Assembly Rooms and Caberfeidh Court, which at the era was still a gated housing complex. It was converted from burning oil to using local wood chips starting in 2013.
The wood comes from Braehour Forest, near Westerdale, before being crushed at Borrowston Quarry, south of Thrumster, and delivered to the Wick factory. Alternative forests can be used when the supply runs out in Braehour, which is part of a peatland restoration program and is therefore not replanted. “In Braehour they want to return it to Flow Country, so we’re taking all the trees,” Mr Gilmore pointed out.
“We collect the logs from the forest, bring them in fresh and store them in Borrowston. We naturally dry it and then grind it on site, transport it here and then burn it. In one month, we go to about 700 tons.
The 200 dwellings supplied with heat are mostly social housing, as well as some social housing and individual houses. In 2015 Caithness General Hospital was connected, along with the former medical center nearby.
Ignis has three full-time employees at Wick and one part-time employee. Mr Gilmore said: “Everything we do is local. When the log is harvested, it is the local people. It is transported to Borrowston Quarry, it is local. It is chipped by local people. All maintenance here is done by local companies. We try to keep it as local as possible.
“Right now, we are self-sufficient. We supply ourselves with electricity and we export electricity to the national grid.
Customers are satisfied with the service they receive, according to Mr. Gilmore. “They seem happy. I haven’t had any complaints for a long time,” he said.
Asked about converting a gas supply into domestic properties, he explained: “It’s just a bit of piping to replace the gas boiler with a heat exchanger, and that’s basically it. There’s not a lot of work to do.”
He said he would welcome inquiries from the public.
“We hope the council can join us and help,” Mr Gilmore said. “There is government funding for the extension of the networks, there is a big push right now after COP26. We have to see what interest there is there.
“I need a public interest gauge – I’m happy for people to get in touch.”
The phone number for Ignis Wick Ltd is 01955 609456.
Mr. Gilmore added that the Wick plant is unique in what it does with the steam it generates. “Most sites just run it through a steam turbine, or they just do district heating, and that’s it,” he said. “But we do the distillery, we have steam turbines, and we have district heating – so combining the three together and having the three work together in harmonious synchronization, is unique.
Councilor Bremner believes the local authority needs to explore a range of sustainable energy options for the long term benefit of households.
“We are aware of people who will come in and they will cry in the hall of Caithness House [the Highland Council building in Wick town centre] because they don’t know where to turn next because of their fuel bills and it’s either heat or eat,” he said after touring Operation Ignis. “It has become such a common expression, but it is a reality for many people.
“Some of the conversations I’ve had are trying to get Highland Council to have a more astute business mindset, rather than just trying to be a supplier to a house with different energy supply choices. .
“Why can’t the council start becoming a bigger investor in power generation and also become an investor in its own power generation? This is surely the most sustainable way to be able to keep your tenants on a level playing field, rather than exposing them to the influences of the oil and gas market that they have right now.
“We have to become much more local to solve the problems here. Solar panels, let’s look at that. We have wind turbines and this energy goes south. Why can’t we take control of some of the energy production ourselves and invest it in the community at the source?
“It doesn’t look like we’ll be able to change the government’s mindset very quickly about energy being grown here and then down south without us taking advantage of it.” So let’s look at power generation in a way where we can actually take advantage of it for ourselves – and I think there’s a range of options out there.
“Funding from wind farms right now tends to go to communities and they have a say in how it is spent. But they have the ability to pull a lot of that together and see if it could actually be invested in other power generation programs that could be produced in the county, directly benefiting the people of the county.