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Hundreds feel the benefits of Wick district heating scheme – and it could be expanded


By Alan Hendry

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Councillor Raymond Bremner (left) and Harris Gilmore, manager of Ignis Wick Ltd, inside the biomass plant.
Councillor Raymond Bremner (left) and Harris Gilmore, manager of Ignis Wick Ltd, inside the biomass plant.

A low-carbon district heating scheme in Wick is helping hundreds of householders to avoid the worst excesses of fuel poverty – and its operators believe there is potential for it to be extended further.

The sustainable energy centre owned by Ignis Wick Ltd provides heating and hot water to around 200 homes in the Pulteneytown area as well as to Caithness General Hospital and the Assembly Rooms, and it supplies steam to the adjacent Pulteney Distillery.

Ignis burns around 700 tonnes of locally sourced wood chip each month and the heat is distributed through a 10.5km network of underground pipes.

“Savings-wise it's immense compared to gas and oil in the current market,” manager Harris Gilmore said. “Some people might pay more, some some might pay less, but the average cost to the customers is about £500 a year for their hot water and heating.”

There could be scope for an expansion of the biomass scheme, depending on the level of interest.

Mr Gilmore explained: “For us, it's gauging what interest there is. If I get substantial interest, it'll be a fair indicator that we need to really do something about it.”

Local Highland councillor Raymond Bremner believes the opportunities are well worth exploring. Against a backdrop of soaring bills and a volatile energy market, he is asking the local authority to look into a range of options to invest in sustainable power with the aim of easing the financial pressure on consumers and reducing fuel poverty.

Ignis Wick Ltd manager Harris Gilmore with a handful of newly delivered wood chip. Picture: Alan Hendry
Ignis Wick Ltd manager Harris Gilmore with a handful of newly delivered wood chip. Picture: Alan Hendry

Councillor Bremner took up an invitation to tour the Ignis base in Wick's Albert Street the day after Mr Gilmore had spoken to members of the local community council at their March meeting.

“I've asked for a paper to come to council with a view to exploring the opportunities and the potential," Councillor Bremner said.

“We would really want to be making sure that it's helping out people who are on low incomes, who are affected by fuel poverty, who are in deprived areas of the town. But at the same time we know that to maximise the commercialisation of it, you wouldn't want it to be restricted to that.

“We can't just keep on saying, 'Yes, we understand about fuel poverty, we understand about deprivation,' and not be seen to be taking big decisions and big steps to be able to mitigate that.

“I think within Wick we have a real opportunity to do that. One of the answers to the problem seems to be sitting on our doorstep.”

Ignis took over the district heating scheme – formerly Caithness Heat and Power – from Highland Council a decade ago and started supplying heat to homes in Pulteneytown as well as the Assembly Rooms and Caberfeidh Court, which at that time was still a sheltered housing complex. It was converted from burning oil to using local wood chip from 2013.

A lorry-load of wood chip being delivered to the Ignis site last week.
A lorry-load of wood chip being delivered to the Ignis site last week.

The wood comes from Braehour Forest, near Westerdale, before being chipped at Borrowston Quarry, south of Thrumster, and delivered to the Wick plant. Alternative forests can be used when the supply runs out at Braehour, which is part of a peatland restoration programme and is therefore not being replanted. “At Braehour they're wanting to return it to Flow Country so basically we're taking all the trees," Mr Gilmore pointed out.

“We get the logs in from the forest, take it in fresh, and we store it at Borrowston. We dry it naturally and then chip it on site, haul it in here and then we burn it. In a month we go through about 700 tonnes.”

The 200 homes that are supplied with heat are mostly council properties, along with some social housing and private houses. In 2015 Caithness General Hospital was connected, along with the former medical centre nearby.

Ignis has three full-time staff in Wick and one part-time worker. Mr Gilmore said: “Everything we do is local. When the log is harvested, it's local people. It gets hauled to Borrowston Quarry, it's local. It is chipped by local people. All the maintenance in here is by local companies. We try to keep it as local as we can.

“Right now we're self-sufficient. We power ourselves and we export electricity to the national grid.”

The Ignis plant burns around 700 tonnes of locally sourced wood chip each month.
The Ignis plant burns around 700 tonnes of locally sourced wood chip each month.

Customers are satisfied with the service they receive, according to Mr Gilmore. “They seem happy. I've not had any complaints in a long time," he said.

Asked about the conversion from a gas supply in domestic properties, he explained: “It's just a little bit of pipework to replace the gas boiler with a heat exchanger, and that is essentially it. There is not a lot of work involved."

He said he would welcome enquiries from the public.

“We're hoping the council can come on board and help," Mr Gilmore said. "There's government funding for extending networks, there's a big push on just now after COP26. We need to see what interest there is out there.

“I need a gauge of public interest – 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 either put it through a steam turbine, or they do just district heating, and that's it," he said. "But we do the distillery, we've got steam turbines, and we've got district heating – so combining all three together, and making all three work together in harmonious synchronisation, is unique.”

The Ignis Wick Ltd base at the top of Albert Street.
The Ignis Wick Ltd base at the top of Albert Street.

Councillor Bremner believes the local authority needs to explore a range of sustainable energy options for the long-term benefit of householders.

“We're aware of people who will come in and they'll be crying in the foyer of Caithness House [the Highland Council building in Wick town centre] because they don't know where to turn to next because of their fuel bills and it's either heat or eat," he said after being shown around the Ignis operation. "That has become such a common phrase, but it's a fact of life for a lot of people.

“Some of the conversations I've been having are to try and get Highland Council to be more astutely commercially minded, rather than trying to be just the provider of a house with various choices for energy supply.

“Why can't the council start becoming a bigger investor in energy production and also becoming an investor in its own energy production? Surely that's the most sustainable way to be able to look at keeping your tenants on an even keel, rather than exposing them to the market influences of oil and gas that they've got at the moment.

Councillor Raymond Bremner after being given a tour of the Ignis plant in Wick. Picture: Alan Hendry
Councillor Raymond Bremner after being given a tour of the Ignis plant in Wick. Picture: Alan Hendry

“We need to become an awful lot more local about fixing the challenges that are here. Solar panels, let's look at that. We've got wind turbines and that energy is going south. Why can't we take control of some of the production of energy ourselves and invest it into the community at source?

“It doesn't look as though we're going to be able to shift the mindset of government very quickly in terms of energy being farmed here and then going south and us not getting the benefit. So let's look at energy production in a manner where we can actually get it to benefit ourselves – and I think there's a range of options sitting waiting for us.

“The funding that comes in from the wind farms at the moment tends to go to the communities and they get the say over how that gets spent. But they have got the ability to bring a fair amount of that together and see if that could actually be invested in other energy production schemes that could be produced in the county, to the benefit of the people of the county directly.”


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