The Energy Epicentre
When the search was on for the perfect test bed for marine renewable technology more than a decade ago, there was one place above all that stood out as a perfect match.
Orkney could almost have been invented for the very purpose as the islands, and particularly Billia Croo near Stromness, offered the ideal location to experience a blend of tough weather from the Atlantic conditions that could be harnessed into power, alongside a natural harbour at Scapa Flow.
In the 1980s, Burgar Hill had been a UK test centre for wind energy and with a basic connection to the mainland grid, Orkney was an obvious choice for taking the next step in renewable technology.
Pelamis Wave Power, founded in 1998 as Ocean Power Delivery by Richard Yemm, was there at the start of the push for Scotland and the UK’s equivalent to Risø in Denmark – a national laboratory for sustainable energy.
With this in mind, Yemm, a former recipient of the Saltire Prize, said the move to Orkney was a “no-brainer” and thanks to pressure on the then Scottish Executive, the European Marine Energy Centre was established in 2003 and by August 2004, the first electricity from the offshore waves to grid was produced.
“It shows you can achieve something spectacular, if there is common political, industrial and financial investor will to go and make something happen – it happens.
“Since then of course it has snowballed, for a long time we were the only tenants, but now there are more tidal and wave machines in Orkney than there are in the rest of the world put together.
“Orkney has become, quite literally, the epicentre of marine energy. Our original vision of a Risø centre of excellence was achieved.”
The arrival of renewables on Orkney has been vital for its community too. A region with a long marine heritage, but with other industries that had been its bedrock such as oil and fishing, though less abundant, it has been able to embrace the new technology and give it its full support.
A total of 400 people in Orkney are employed in the renewables sector across a broad range of job types. More than 3 per cent of jobs in Orkney are directly related to marine energy.
In the last 10 years, there has been more than £400m investment in Orkney, with more than 100 per cent of energy demand being produced from renewables.
EMAC now has 14 full-scale test berths and also operates two scale test sites where smaller devices, or those at an earlier stage in their development, can be put to test in the sea, but in less challenging conditions than a full scale wave or tidal site.
Earlier this month, EMEC hosted the first EU Energy Day dedicated to ocean energy, in partnership with Ocean Energy Europe, the trade association for ocean renewables in Europe.
Paul Verhoef, the European Commission’s head of unit for new and renewable sources, said: “The recent situation that has developed in the Ukraine has underlined the necessity to look at indigenous production as a matter of importance.
“We have come quite far already in the photovoltaic and wind sectors in Europe. The next sector we need to help to get in the fray is ocean energy.
“In Orkney it was just fascinating to see, first of all, the level of community involvement – they are enormously proud – there were a lot of the local people being involved in the industry.
“Secondly, the industry is closely working together, they are sharing information, they share support, tools and other assets, which is not necessarily obvious when they are supposed to be competing with each other.
“They are doing it because it shares costs but my sense is it goes a lot further.”
At Pelamis’ head office in Edinburgh, a bank of computers includes reams of data on the projects it currently has in Orkney’s waters, with the ability to monitor how successfully the equipment is working. These include GPS positioning and cameras to see inside the individual turbines.
For the moment, the focus for everyone in Orkney is getting individual technology up to a level where it can be considered commercial – neither wave nor tidal is at this point yet.
Yemm adds: “The rest of this decade is about demonstrating viability and an array of machines working together on an effective basis.
“The first half of the next decade is about achieving scales and delivering these projects – getting to 20 or 30MW projects, the kind that says this is now commercial.
“Through those, it will deliver a cost of energy reduction trajectory which means the next logical step is something like the Round 1 offshore wind was five to six years ago.”
By the end of the next decade, it is hoped something like 1,000MW of capability could be installed UK-wide, with two thirds of it in Scotland, although not necessarily all in Orkney as by then other areas will be benefiting from the research and demonstration the islands’ waters have made possible.
But for this to be successful the pressure is on for even more investment in Orkney. While it was selected for its connection to the mainland grid, an upgrade is needed.
This was one of the main topics of conversation for Verhoef on his recent visit to Scotland – which also included a meeting with DECC and representatives from across the Scottish renewables sector in Edinburgh.
“Hopefully, we are going to get the industry into the next phase, that means deployment. I’ve said it in Orkney, I’ve said it in Edinburgh: I think it would be very beneficial if the Scottish Government, the UK Government and us could walk hand in hand to see how we can help push this industry.
“We can provide a broader perspective for the industry. They can skip the problems and avoid reliving some of the nightmares I’m sure the Scottish Government and local communities would have had to go through.
“It looks like Orkney is going to stay if not the global then at least the European test centre for all these devices – it is an ideal environment.”
He said issues on grid connections were not unique to Orkney and areas of substantial investment would raise questions about who will finance it.
The 180MW cable required for Orkney is one of three planned Scottish island transmission connections currently vying for funding. The others are a 450MW cable to the Western Isles and a 600MW link to the Shetland Isles.
Between now and 2020, an estimated £5bn to £8bn is estimated to be needed on infrastructure including new vessels, cables, convertor stations and sub stations. But this would see a return of 1GW in marine renewable capacity.
Ofgem will only approve investment in the cables if there is firm commitment from island renewables’ developers to use them.
While Yemm said Orkney’s connection may be the cheaper of the three, because the case for the upgrade is more reliant on marine energy, it may mean that it is the least likely of the three to go ahead.
But he said it was important to “put your shoulder behind it” and keep up the pressure for an upgrade.
“We lost this in wind,” he said. “We could have done this and didn’t. Let’s not make the same mistake again. It would be quite easy from here to have done the hard part and lose the prize.”
Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe