Orcadians have long known the potential of the energy around them, with the persistence and power of the wind, waves and tides. In the 21st century, renewable energy has really taken off in Orkney, however, the islands have a strong history of utilising the natural energy potential of the area. 

The birth of an industry

Wind energy has been harnessed on the islands for generations, from maritime transportation to the early windmills evident from the 18th century, and over time came the birth of an industry with the first grid-connected wind turbines in the 20th century. 

For generations, wind energy has been used to mill grain and pump water, and allowed for small turbines to become popular as early as the 1930s. In addition to the wind, water power was also commonly used to run machinery in earlier centuries. You can still see several ruined watermills and abandoned waterwheels across the county, and two of these mills, Click Mill and  Barony Mill are still in working order. 

Since then, the growing demand for energy came with the start of the industrial revolution in the early 1800s, and the development of the national grid in 1935. The latter of which would not come to Orkney until 1982. 

Wind energy

The first step towards the modern-day wind energy industry in Orkney began with the testing of the first grid-connected wind turbine in the UK at Costa Head, Orkney in 1951. The turbine’s unfortunate demise came in when a storm hit Orkney, though, with determination and ambition to succeed, Orcadians persisted. 

In the 1980s, Burgar Hill became the new test site for wind energy projects.  A number of turbines were installed at the site during the 80s. Most iconic was the LS1 Installed in 1987, a 3MW turbine was the largest experimental wind turbine of its time. This generator had 60 m span twin blades and a 45 m high cylindrical concrete tower. The turbine operated until 1997 and was demolished in 2000, the concrete foundation can still be seen today. 

Since then, developments in the wind industry have come across the country including both commercial and community turbine projects in the mainland and outer isles.  

Wind turbine at Costa Head
Wind turbine at Costa Head (Credit Aquatera)

Marine energy

During the same year, 2001, a recommendation by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee set the wheels in motion for the establishment of the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), setting Orkney firmly on the path to a renewable future.

Since 2003, Orkney has been home to EMEC, the world’s first and foremost test site for real-life deployment of marine energy devices. This has placed Orkney at the forefront of the development of marine renewables – technologies that generate electricity for homes and businesses by harnessing the power of waves and tidal streams.

Magallenes Renovables ATIR installation (Copyright Colin Keldie, courtesy of Ocean_2G)
Magallenes Renovables ATIR installation (Copyright Colin Keldie, courtesy of Ocean_2G)