What we can all learn from Orkney’s bold vision of the future
The Scandinavian countries are often heralded as pioneering examples of integrated renewable energy systems.
We’re told to look north for inspiration, to learn how economies built on sustainable energy can thrive.
On a recent trip to Orkney, however, it became abundantly clear to Scottish Renewables’ Claire Mack and Jenny Hogan that Scotland has “a truly advanced, renewable-powered society of our own” – a remote but forward-thinking testbed for the future of energy.
For Claire, it was the way in which Orkney unites energy, its economy and its people which really makes the archipelago something special:
“Orkney has laid the foundations for a model that brings energy, environment and economy together – always with people at the heart.
“The location of the European Marine Energy Centre on the islands has spurred the development of an energy ecosystem, as well as wider, out-the-box thinking on how Orkney’s abundant energy resources can be harnessed locally to drive a more resilient local economy.”
EMEC is, of course, the world’s most innovative ocean energy test centre.
Its mission is to reduce the time, cost and risk of developing marine energy technologies.
The centre’s purpose-built open-sea testing facilities are drawing in technology developers from all over the world.
Jenny, Scottish Renewables’ Deputy Chief Executive, writes:
“During our trip, Wello’s Penguin wave energy converter and a datacentre developed by Microsoft were being tested at EMEC’s Billia Croo test site, and both Scotrenewables’ SR1-2000 device and OpenHydro’s Open Centre Turbine were on site at the Fall of Warness tidal test site.
“Two new technologies are due to be deployed at EMEC later this year: a tidal technology platform by Magallanes is on its way to the site from Spain, and Laminaria, a Flemish company, are preparing to bring their wave energy converter to EMEC."
To date, more marine energy technologies have been trialled in Orkney than any other site in the world, with 20 wave and tidal energy companies having tested 31 technologies.
But there’s more here than meets the eye.
“Things are looking good for Orkney.
“Cruise ships regularly deposit up to 10,000 people into the town of Kirkwall. They browse and shop, then leave not knowing that they have just visited somewhere which is living the future right now.
“What they don’t see is that Orkney has a wider plan to build resilience, self-sufficiency and export opportunities through the marine and onshore wind which is generating there.
“They’re taking a real bottom-up approach that is based first on local assets meeting local needs, then on using those skills and know-how to build a new industry.
“Grid constraints mean there has been a concerted effort to find ways to utilise the energy that can’t be exported from the islands.
“It is noticeable how many EVs are around – more than 200 are in use on the archipelago, so beware looking down at your smartphone as you cross the road in Orkney!”
Renewable transport is a part of Orkney’s future as well as its present.
“The next major renewables project for Orkney is the production of hydrogen from marine and wind energy.
“While hydrogen production for transport isn’t a new concept, the clever bit is how it can support a genuinely resilient local economy.
“The true benefits (and costs) of 10,000 cruise ship passengers dropping by to shop and sightsee are open for debate, but the benefits of harvesting a local, clean, plentiful energy source that can help reduce local authority spend, drive itself deep into the consciousness of the resident population and tackle climate change could be transformational.
“Orkney Islands Council runs nine ferries which utilise three million litres of diesel every year.
“The HYSEAS III project will see a new hydrogen-powered ferry built by Ferguson Marine in Port Glasgow.
“To support this, new skills are being developed with Orkney College to ensure there are people who can carry out operations and maintenance on the system.
“While economic policy focuses on the outcomes of jobs, GVA or export growth, which are all important, the approach in Orkney builds on what they believe is a critical factor: underpinning the local economy with skills, the opportunity to innovate to solve their own local issues and infrastructure investment that will see them set up supply chains and then grow industries.”
“It’s easy for those of us residing on the British mainland to forget that not only are we an island nation, we are a nation of islands.
“Spend a bit of time in Orkney and Scotland’s strong connection with the sea is brought sharply into focus.
“From fishing (the Orkney crab and hand-dived scallops are a particular treat) to defence (the renowned Scapa Flow), and from transport and connectivity (of the 70+ islands, 16 are inhabited, with boat being the main mode of travel between most) to energy, Orkney life is intertwined with the sea.”
Orkney is a microcosm of how the benefits of renewables – beyond just clean energy – can be captured by and for a community.
“At our hotel, which sported both solar panels and an air-source heat pump system, the receptionist asked where we were off to that day.
“On replying that we were headed to the island of Eday to visit the tidal test site, she said with curiosity, ‘Ah, they muct be generating now then?’.
“The average islander is not only familiar with renewables, they understand there’s pioneering work going on and are keeping a keen eye on developments.”
Heartening news indeed for those of us keeping track of the upward trend in public opinion for the technologies Scottish Renewables represents.
Scottish Renewables' Marine Conference takes place in Edinburgh on September 26.
The event will answer key questions around funding, export opportunity and, as in Orkney, the role marine renewables can play in creating sustainable communities.