In 2013, Orkney produced 103% of its total electricity needs through renewable energy sources upping this figure to 120% in 2016. At first glance, it might seem remarkable that a small group of islands lies at the cutting edge of renewable energy development and implementation in the UK. Perhaps the clue that explains why Orkney is playing a world leading role in the adoption and development of renewables lies in the word “islands”. Standing between the Atlantic and the North Sea, Orkney is home to some of the most energy-rich waters in Europe, some of the strongest winds, and a community that have embraced the potential of the islands with open arms.
Orkney’s outstanding wave and tidal resources made it a natural site for EMEC, the European Marine Energy Centre, where new seagoing technologies are put through their paces in challenging wave and tidal conditions. With more grid connected ocean energy devices tested in Orkney than at any other single site in the world, EMEC has put Orkney at the very forefront of marine energy technology worldwide.
Leading the World
This isn’t the first time new renewable technology has been pioneered in Orkney, with the very first grid connected wind turbine tested here on Costa Head in the 1950s. Today, the county is home to approximately 500 domestic turbines, more than any other county in the UK, as well as several larger scale wind farms and community owned turbines. With 1 in 12 Orcadian households generating electricity from renewable sources, Orkney has the highest proportion of households making their own electricity of anywhere in the UK. Orkney can therefore be seen as a pioneer of a decentralised energy system that is still just being talked about in the rest of the country.
As a response to the limitations of insufficient grid capacity, Orkney is currently also home to various innovative schemes. In 2009, the county became home to the UK’s first ‘smart grid,’ which uses a new Active Network Management approach to make better use of the existing network by instructing generators to control their output, in real time, to match the available network capacity.
This curtailment applied to generating capacity is a source of local frustration and a number of ways round it are being developed. The first was the Surf and Turf project, now part of Big Hit, which takes surplus electrical power from wind turbines on Eday and Shapinsay and uses it to electrolyse water to produce oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen is then shipped to Kirkwall where it can be used either directly as fuel or used to generate electricity in a fuel cell.
Two other projects are also in progress to reduce the level of constraint at the Rousay and Eday community turbines. Project Smart and Project Smile seek to remotely switch on devices (EV chargers, heating systems, energy storage devices) in people’s homes when the grid is overloaded – this allows the turbines to keep running
The ReFlex project started its pilot phase in 2019, with the aim of using flexible energy balancing technologies to cover the mismatch between the time of generation of wind and tidal energy and the times of energy demand. These include wider use of batteries together with hydrogen, fuel cells and thermal storage, in larger buildings and vehicles as well as domestic homes and cars.
Ofgem (the UK electricity regulator) gave conditional approval in 2019 for an enhanced 220MW transmission cable to northern Scotland, subject to 135MW of additional generation being in the pipeline for construction. Wind farm projects at Hesta Head and Costa Head were approved by the Scottish Government in 2019, and there are current proposals from Orkney Islands Council to build community wind farms on Hoy and Faray, and in Quanterness.