Orkney Islands embracing and leading on sustainable energy

The Orkney Islands in the northern UK are now producing around 120 per cent of their energy needs via wind and tidal power. John Dyer reports.

Image credit: Owen Robertson via Flickr

Orkney islanders purchased coal and gas from the Scottish mainland for years. But now the windswept archipelago in the northern United Kingdom is a shining example of environmentalism and sustainable energy.

The islands produce around 120 per cent of their energy needs via 700 micro-wind turbines for households, 6 island-owned turbines, tidal turbines and a state-of-the-art power grid, reported Radio New Zealand.

Energy you can feel on your cheeks

“Orkney has an enormous amount of energy in the landscape and that is energy you can feel literally on your cheeks,” said University of Edinberg GeoSciences Lecturer Laura Watts, author of Energy at the End of the World: An Orkney Islands Saga, a book published by MIT Press this year.

European Marine Energy Centre, or EMEC, is also located in Orkney, providing key scientific expertise. EMEC has produced innovative tidal turbines that have generated a total of 5.8 GWh hours of electricity – or enough to power 580 million light bulbs.

A new 2-megawatt turbine, the Scotrenewables SR2000, resembles a boat. It has two rotors on its underbelly that have been spinning nearly continuously since the turbine was launched in 2017. The centre has also recently tested a wave-motion power generator that has transmitted power to the island’s grid.

“Wind has had about 50 years from when it first started, whereas wave and tidal has really been over the last 10 years or so and has actually made quite a lot of progress in that time,” said Jonathan Lindsay, operations and technology director at EMEC. “As we move forward we will see bigger and bigger machines coming along.”

‘An embarrassment of riches’

The islands are experiencing an embarrassment of riches. “Today the islands are so festooned with wind turbines, they cannot find enough uses for the emission-free power they create on their own,” wrote the Guardian.

The excess power in the system has even blown out fuses and electrical equipment.

The islanders have asked the British government to construct an undersea cable that would allow them to transmit power to Scotland. But, while British politicians have debated the proposal, they have refused to take action.

“The islanders are having to be much more self-reliant as a result,” said Watts.

First, they have developed expertise in maintaining and fixing clean technology in their backyards. Second, they are increasingly using electric cars that are especially suited to an island where drivers are never far from a charging station.

Third, they are using the excess energy to produce hydrogen that they sell to earn extra money. They use an electrolyser that splits sea water into hydrogen and oxygen, effectively banking wind and tidal energy for use later. A hydrogen-powered fuel cell is now providing electricity to vessels that dock on one of the island’s piers.

World’s first hydrogen-powered ferry in 2021

In 2021, the world’s first hydrogen-powered ferry is expected to begin moving passengers and cars between the islands and the mainland. More are expected to come online to replace the current aging fleet of boats.

The revolution hasn’t always been smooth. In 2009, the Crown Estate, a public agency that owns the seabed in Britain, closed off fishing and lobster catching in areas around the Orkney islands to facilitate research.

“No one talked to the fishermen, nor to anyone else on Orkney,” Watts told the Guardian. “Areas of sea where Orcadians fish, which is essential to their livelihoods, were threatened without warning, discussion or negotiation.”

Estate agents are now negotiating with fisherman and researchers to broker a compromise between the two sides.

Still, while small, Orkney represents a future that could revolutionize energy generation if applied on a grander scale. The BBC recently reported that tidal flows could generate a fifth of Britain’s electricity needs, for example.

“Innovation often happens at the edge and in a place like Orkney, and other places that if you live in a city might seem like a long way away, are often places where innovation has to happen because you are at the edge of the network,” Watts said.

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