Our Friends Electric: Wind, Waves and Tides-The Orkney Islands Have It All, but They'll Need a Little Help to Make a Difference

Article excerpt

Look across the dark water from Stromness in the Orkney Islands, and you see the twinkling lights of the Flotta Oil Terminal, dominating the horizon and local economy. Yet just over the next headland is a harbinger of a very different future - a wave-power generator on test.

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Orkney continues to reinvent itself both above and below water, from a Pictish settlement to a naval bastion, and now from a hub of the North Sea oil industry to the front line of Britain's low-carbon power revolution. These remote islands have wind, waves and tides -the raw material of renewable energy - in abundance. But, until now, growth has been hampered by the limited capacity of the grid to carry electricity back to the rest of the UK from a series of islands that are physically closer to Norway than to London.

As the site for the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), Orkney is already an international hub for research into tidal and wave power. The Pentland Firth, the turbulent waters dividing Orkney from the north-eastern coast of Scotland, has some of the fastest tides in the world, with speeds of up to ten knots. If this elemental force could be tapped, it could produce up to ten gigawatts of power - more than twice the electricity consumption of Scotland. But with research on tidal energy still in its infancy, no one is quite ready for it.

Strong tides are also found at the Fall of War-ness, off the island of Eday, where they reach speeds of almost eight knots. This is where the EMEC (a private company owned a third each by the Carbon Trust, Orkney Islands Council and the Highlands and Islands Enterprise development trust) built its tidal-energy testing site. Private developers lease EMEC infrastructure to test their devices and measure the quality and quantity of the electricity produced. The Carbon Trust estimates that marine energy around the UK could produce one-fifth of the national electricity supply, on a par with nuclear power.

But generating electricity from the ocean is not just a matter of locating the strongest tides and installing a machine. The sea is unforgiving and the tides flow in both directions. "We're building an industry in places that, historically, mariners would have avoided," says the EMEC's managing director, Neil Kermode.

Threats to survival

Along with strong waves and tides, Orkney's access to sheltered water and human resources helped it secure the EMEC bid. The locale boasts marine operations expertise, including diving and remotely operated underwater vehicles and harbour tugs. Meanwhile, the Stromness campus of Heriot-Watt University and various Orcadian businesses, such as the environmental consultancy Aquatera, offer experience in renewables. Gareth Davies, managing director of Aquatera, estimates that the renewables sector in Orkney employs about 180 people; that includes about six organisations with more than ten staff each.

Heriot-Watt, whose roots are in Edinburgh, has offered a Master's degree in renewable energy since 2004 and graduates provide a valuable pool of talent for Orkney's renewables industry. The oil and gas industry is another source of talent, as many of the skills are transferable. Sandy Kerr, a Heriot-Watt lecturer and member of the Orkney Renewable Energy Forum, says there is a push to ensure that the UK owns the technology. He points out that Britain had a lead in wind energy in the early 1980s.

"Germany and the Netherlands commercialised it and there are now 60,000 people employed on the Continent building these things [wind turbines] and exporting them back to Britain," Kerr says. …