Community-owned project that aims to decarbonise the heat supply on the island of Iona wins Social Innovation Challenge prize

Carmen Paputa-Dutu from Firstport and Shiona Ruhemann from Iona Energy Ltd

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THE IONA Heat Network has been unveiled as the winner of the Social Innovation Challenge 2022. Using an existing technology – ground source heat network – in an innovative way will allow residents of this remote Hebridean island to move away from a reliance on fossil fuels and address the problem of fuel poverty which disproportionally affects them.

The £50,000 grant funding prize will be used to carry out essential technical work, as well as bringing in expertise to steer the project over the line to the construction phase in 2023.

The Iona Heat Network, a project of community-led charity Iona Renewables and its wholly owned subsidiary Iona Energy Ltd, has been in development for years. With all the island’s energy imported and reliant on expensive single use electricity tariffs, oil and coal, heating costs have always been exceptionally high, even before the recent increases caused by the war in Ukraine and other global factors.

Having identified that a ground source heat network was the only viable environmentally friendly energy solution for the island’s particular needs, the community of Iona, with steadfast support of multiple local and national stakeholders, have collectively led the development of a transformative ground source heat network, which will be owned, operated, and maintained by island residents.

Ground source heating is not a new technology. As the name suggests, it works by extracting heat from the ground, pumping water through it in pipes. However, using it in this decentralised, network design is a first in the UK, essentially operating as a communal, low-emission, low-cost heating system for the island.

Once installed, the heat network will enable residents to reduce their energy costs and carbon emissions through effective, affordable, renewable heat that is collectively owned. Long-term, the project hopes to offer a replicable model for other remote, vulnerable areas facing similar challenges.

Shiona Ruhemann from Iona Renewables said: “We are absolutely delighted to have won this year’s Social Innovation Challenge. Having come all this way through sheer community commitment and determination, the island community is in sight of delivering an innovative, exemplar ‘bottom-up’ model for addressing the most intractable low-carbon problems on Iona and for other challenging rural settings.”

The Social Innovation Challenge (SIC), delivered by social enterprise agency Firstport, funds and supports innovators to kick-start solutions that tackle some of the most pressing challenges of our time. The programme is centred around a different theme each year. Building on the legacy of COP26, the 2022 theme looked for innovative solutions to climate change issues faced by rural communities in Scotland.

Social Justice Secretary Shona Robison said: “The Scottish Government is delighted to fund the Social Innovation Challenge 2022 via Firstport’s Social Entrepreneurs Fund and Iona Heat Network are deserved winners. 

“Their innovative use of heat technology addresses carbon omissions and at a time of rising energy costs and bills, it also creates a sustainable solution to help tackle the energy issues faced by this rural community. It’s a model that can be shared across other rural areas. 

“The Social Innovation Challenge is just one example of our continued support for new and emerging social entrepreneurs and growing social enterprises. It gives opportunities to all people in Scotland and plays an important role in helping us achieve our net zero ambitions.”

Gael Drummond, Chief Executive of Firstport, said: “Huge congratulations to the Iona Renewables team and to the community of Iona on winning the Social Innovation Challenge 2022. When we opened applications in July, we were hoping to find examples of innovative solutions that addressed the challenge theme and were rooted in community need. The Iona Heat Network delivered in all fronts, and we are delighted to be able to help get the project over the line.

“We look forward to supporting the team over the coming months and seeing the prize money being put to good use”.

More information about the programme is available on the Firstport website.

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