Innovation at the edge of the world

The Orkney Islands, off Scotland’s north coast, may be remote but they are home to some of the world’s most experimental forms of renewable energy. From whisky distillery to powering sea, air and road transportation, we find out how the magic happens

Author // Helena Pozniak

Step outside and you can feel the energy on the blustery shores of Orkney. Gales and waves hammer the coastline and fierce tides surge around the 70-odd islands north of the Scottish mainland. While the Gulf Stream softens the temperature here, it’s nearly always windy. “No other region in Great Britain can compare with it for the violence and frequency of its winds,” wrote Magnus Spence in 1908 in The Climate of Orkney. “Energy is visible here,” says Dr Laura Watts, an ethnographer and senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh who’s made her home on Stromness on the Orkney mainland. “You feel it on your body – the pressure of the wind and the force of the sea. Electricity and energy are a topic of everyday conversation – it’s literally in the air.” Awash with natural power, the islands are renowned as a testing site for dozens of renewable energy technologies. There are huge turbines anchored off shore to harness the tides and a number of experimental waves devices being put through their paces. But the biggest draw for energy geeks – who, in a normal year, would be visiting the islands – are the emerging hydrogen technologies. From fuelling planes to powering ferries, experiments with hydrogen here are breaking new ground. Even one of Scotland’s most famous exports might one day be carbon neutral, if whisky can be distilled with the cleanest of fuels: green hydrogen, made from excess renewable energy.

“Energy is visible here. You feel it on your body - the pressure of the wind and the force of the sea. Electricity and energy are a topic of everyday conversation”
Dr Laura Watts

Of the various methods of extracting the gas, this method used on Orkney is the cleanest – others involve burning fossil fuel for grey hydrogen, or storing carbon underground during production to give blue hydrogen – and production requires hefty amounts of energy. But on the Orkney Islands, the surplus electricity from the abundance of natural power is used to electrolyse or “split” water into its composite hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen burns at the same temperature as natural gas, with water as the only by-product. It can be burned to produce heat or used within a fuel cell for applications such as transport – fuel cells are typically more efficient. But hydrogen – now heavily championed and funded by the UK government – has plenty of detractors. It’s the most common element on earth, says Dr Thomas Baxter, honorary senior lecturer in chemical engineering at the University of Aberdeen, but it doesn’t come for free – energy is required to break the chemical bonds from compounds which contain it. “Anyone working to reduce the carbon footprint has to be patted on the back,” he says. “But could there be better ways of using surplus energy - looking at battery storage or compressing air, or moving to greater electrification?” Unless the rest of the UK has access to large supplies of low carbon, it’s not a climate solution – and it’s never been used at scale before. To use hydrogen, you have to put in more energy to make it, move it and convert it, says Baxter. Dangerous to store, tricky to transport, it’s expensive too. It has a place, critics say, in industrial processes, such as steel and petrochemicals manufacture.

“It’s not a silver bullet,” says James Walker, who as hydrogen development manager at the Orkney-based European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) oversees projects on Orkney. “It’s best to get that out there… but the flexibility that comes with being able to handle energy in a different form can be really quite compelling. I think we need a mix of solutions to deliver what will be an incredibly challenging energy transition.”

And on the islands, green hydrogen can offer extra power on a cold winter’s day – or a backup for erratic supply or a surge in demand. One of EMEC’s projects looks to store variable but predictable tidal energy in Scottish-made “flow” batteries, and power from these will then be used to make a steady supply of hydrogen. Another project is looking at using artificial intelligence to optimise production of hydrogen, drawing on weather and consumer data. “So you can make and discharge hydrogen at the most cost effective time,” says Walker.

James Walker

This is because there’s too much natural energy for the islands to make use of. On windy days, islanders lose money as community wind turbines must be disconnected to avoid overloading the limited infrastructure of the energy grid. This is why EMEC and the islands began looking into hydrogen in the first place.

“Community turbines have gone on the grid on what’s called a ‘non firm’ connection,” explains Watts. “This means they can be switched off by an active network management system. If your community turbine is no longer generating revenue,well that’s a serious event for fragile, vulnerable island communities of 300 or so.” Since 2013, Orkney has generated more than 100% of its electricity demand from renewable power sources. But even though it’s all generated locally, energy bills are still high. Orcadians are charged 2p more for every kilowatt of electricity they use because of steep transmission costs.

Since the first hydrogen project began in 2015, more innovations have followed. An early initiative used renewable power to electrolyse hydrogen on the island of Eday and transport it in bespoke gas canisters to the mainland. In Kirkwall harbour on the mainland of Orkney it was converted via a fuel cell back into electricity and used as auxiliary power for the ferries when they were in dock.

Frustratingly for those involved, demonstrations activities for clean ferries – fuelled by a new hydrogen and diesel dual fuel conversion system – planned this year have stalled because of a hitch in regulatory approval. To date the project has been fraught with technical challenges, but ultimately could lead to renewably powered ferries on routes around Scotland’s island and remote communities, and clean up local sea journeys, currently powered by diesel. If you knew the whisky or gin you sipped was carbon neutral, would it taste better? This is another EMEC project, and part of a wider UK push, together with a couple of distillery partners, to use hydrogen rather than fossil fuels to power the malting and distilling process. A feasibility study has been successful, says Walker, and hydrogen could serve the remoter distilleries well.

“It’s technically challenging just being able to handle hydrogen in the current [distillery] systems as it behaves very differently from the fuels they currently use,” says Walker. “And this in heritage buildings – where currently much whisky is distilled – is a challenge. But it’s an important sector for Scotland and Orkney. Making a distilled liquid from hydrogen would be a UK first.”

You can’t escape innovation around the islands. On Shapinsay, there are plans to use locally created hydrogen to heat the community school; the fuel has to be transported by road as there’s no gas pipelines on the islands. There’s a fleet of hybrid electric and hydrogen council vans powered by hydrogen and a hydrogen refuelling station (currently out of order) on the main island. But in transport, says Walker, hydrogen has more value in long-distance haulage and heavy-duty transport such as trains, lorries and shipping, where it could be used to boost battery power. Hydrogen planes have already flown successfully, and the islands have their part to play here. In a world first, a commercial scale hydrogen plane HyFlyer 1 has already flown in the UK, developed by US startup ZeroAvia in collaboration with British partners. A 19-seater hydrogen-electric aircraft is planned to fly in early 2023. “Our involvement is on the hydrogen supply side,” says Walker. “We’ve partnered with Fuel Cell Systems to provide a mobile fuel solution – a truck with a hydrogen production unit off the back with which we can dispense fuel into the aircraft. It’s a really cool bit of kit.”

“Building the future is not just about the technology, it’s people’s jobs and being ready for how they will change in the future. This is the leading edge - at the edge of the world”
Dr Laura Watts

All these projects are developing new skills within the community, says Watts: from ferry crew learning how to handle hydrogen, to creating new ways of storing and transporting the gas over the winding island roads to becoming literate about energy policy.

“I can’t talk for the 22,000 islanders but these projects are starting to train people up with world-leading skills,” says Watts. “Building the future is not just about the technology, it’s people’s jobs and being ready for how they will change in the future. This is the leading edge - at the edge of the world.”

In her book Energy at the End of the World: An Orkney Islands Saga, Watts revisits the islands’ rich geography and 6,000 years of history, and pioneering efforts to harness the wind. Some six decades ago, mainland Orkney hosted one of the UK’s first wind turbines on the bleak and gusty Costa Head, where winds can rise above 125 miles per hour. “The islands have been at the forefront of how we can change the energy system,” says Watts. In 1951, engineers built a 78ft tower, topped with blades made from spruce and plywood, and protected with plastic. Now the islands host some 700 micro wind turbines supplying 10% of homes on Orkney, and 12 larger turbines. There are three times as many electric cars here than on average across the UK. “This is what the energy future looks like when it’s lived,” she says. “And it’s being made locally by the people here.”

In fact, the islands still have a heavy carbon footprint, relying on carbon-emitting diesel ferries and planes – with diesel back-up generators – which might one day be replaced with hydrogen fuelled systems. Most houses have electric heating but some more remote homes still burn oil. As well as solving the cost of lost energy, hydrogen can help islanders decarbonise. “If Orkney want to move to net zero – which we really do – we have got to come up with different vectors for our fuel,” says Watts. “And that means moving away from fossil fuel for our transport.”

Last year Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared in Orkney in person, celebrating the islands’ potential as a “long-term generator of green jobs” after announcing investment to be shared with Shetland and the Western Isles. Orcadians took this in their stride, says Watts. “If you look where we are on the map, you might think ‘my goodness that’s far north’. But here it feels like the centre of the universe – dynamic and well connected across the sea. There’s a standing joke here - ‘which film crew is here this week?’ Everything here moves incredibly quickly. Islands, with their geography and sensitive ecosystems, are on the frontline of climate change.”