TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO I was invited to speak at the newly established Orkney Science Festival and I looked forward to making my first of several visits to the islands.
One of the fellow passengers on my flight to Kirkwall was Sir Michael Joughin, then chairman of Scottish Hydro-Electric, the power company responsible for the Highlands and Islands; he was a fellow speaker at the Festival.
He told me about some of the difficulties they had in ensuring a reliable power supply throughout the Orkney islands.
There was an interconnector from the mainland but if the weather was particularly cold it couldn’t deliver enough to meet the islander’s needs and they had to fire up locally based oil-fuelled electricity generators, at significantly higher cost.
That was then, but this is now – and the situation is quite different.
As most people know, Orkney has no trees, and one of the main reasons for this is that it is also a very windy place, unsuitable for the growth of young saplings. The locals quip that an umbrella is pretty useless in the rain, a riot shield being more practical.
It should be no surprise then, that Orkney has turned out to be an ideal location for wind farms and over 700 wind turbines are now installed – they routinely generate 120% of the islands' power needs.
And that’s without counting the power now beginning to come online from wave and tidal powered generators. There are lots of waves crashing onto the Orkney shores, but the various channels between the islands of the archipelago also have strong, reliable, tidal flows.
The world-leading European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) in Orkney has been testing over 30 different marine energy systems since it was established in 2003. A recent breakthrough there has been the Scotrenewables SR2000 tidal energy turbine which was installed in 2017 off the west coast of Eday. Unlike previous systems, it has proven to be very reliable and has generated more power in the last 12 months than all the marine energy generated by a myriad of projects over 12 previous years.
So, what to do with all this spare power? Beefing up the interconnector with the rest of Scotland so it could be exported would be one option. However, that is dependent on the rest of the UK doing something, and the Orcadians have other, more creative, ideas.
Spare power from the Eday turbine is now being used to power an electrolyser splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, with the hydrogen created currently being used as an energy source at Kirkwall harbour. Also, Jim McColl’s Port Glasgow shipyard, Ferguson Marine Engineering, announced last summer that it is going ahead to build the world’s first flotilla of hydrogen-powered sea ferries, which should eventually see Orkney’s nine-strong ferry fleet entirely powered by hydrogen produced by their own spare renewable energy.
There has also been a dramatic growth of electric vehicles (EV) on Orkney. The price of petrol remains pretty steep on the islands, so using lower cost electricity to power your vehicle is particularly attractive, and the ‘range anxiety’ that EV drivers experience elsewhere is much less troubling on a island where a 20 mile journey takes you from coast to coast.
Sir Michael Joughin, who died in 1996, would be amazed at the developments over the last 20 years, and I suspect he would never ever have predicted that of all the British Isles, it would be Orkney that would become first to power all its own needs from renewable energy.