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Natural resources – Scottish islands want to bet on renewable energies

Posted18 October 2021, 12:31

The Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands – in the far north of the UK – want to look to the sea and the wind to develop renewable energy.

The tidal energy generator from the start-up Orbital.


“Here you have the North Sea, there the Atlantic, and every six hours it’s a battle, with half a billion tonnes of water flowing through per hour. Ideal for testing turbines ”, explains to AFP Daniel Wise, a manager of the Orbital company.

The start-up is experimenting off the Scottish archipelago of Orkney, its tidal energy generator, O2, the most powerful in the world: a submerged propeller propelled by current, capable of producing electricity for 2,000 homes.

In the far north of the UK, Orkney and neighboring Shetland Islands have long built their prosperity on oil from the North Sea. At a time when this manna is running out and when the climate emergency is imperative, these archipelagos beaten by the wind and the waves are turning full sail towards renewables.

“Green” hydrogen

In these islands, whose Neolithic remains recall the millennial past, wind turbines punctuate the horizon and engineering projects abound. “Considering the enormous energy potential at our disposal, Orkney is an ideal place to try new” technologies. We have many research sites and companies working together at the heart of a green economy, ”explains Jerry Gibson, technician at the European marine energy research institute Emec.

Emec thus produces “green” hydrogen – from renewable sources – from a tidal turbine and electrolysis using seawater from Eday, one of the 20 inhabited islands of Orkney, which have some 22,000 inhabitants, like Shetland.

The hydrogen is pressurized, transported to the port of Kirkwall, the main town of the archipelago, where it is transformed into electricity which supplies the ferries at the quayside. A small step to decarbonise the highly polluting maritime transport industry.


Hydrogen “is important because it is another way to store electricity in addition to batteries or to go directly to the electricity grid”, notes Jerry Gibson, because the Orkneys produce more energy than they do. do not consume. Emec also tests wave energy generators in the laboratory, that which comes from waves, which is more complex to model than that of tides.

200 km further north, on the island of Shetlands with the sweet name of Yell (“cry” in English), another start-up is also betting on tidal energy, but with a model of smaller turbines close to the shore . “What is great with tidal energy is that it is totally predictable (…) and does not depend on the weather” unlike solar and wind power, underlines Tom Wills, one of the managers of Nova Innovation. This reliability is crucial for the stability of the energy supply at a time of withdrawal from hydrocarbons.

The great thing about tidal power is that it is totally predictable.

Tom Wills, a Nova Innovation Manager.

Docked at the Cullivoe terminal, Nova has installed an electric vehicle charging station powered by its underwater turbines, which Fiona Nicholson regularly visits. She lives not far away, overlooking one of the beaches with turquoise waters and fine sand that make up the beauty of the Scottish islands. “We see the sea and hear it every day, we know its power. So it’s nice to use it to charge the car, ”she told AFP.

It recognizes that the drilling in the North Sea and the infrastructure of the vast Sullom Voe oil terminal on the main island of Shetland, one of the largest in Europe, have brought a lot to local life, by financing roads, schools, sports centers and offering thousands of jobs to residents, who know this model is threatened in the long term.

The Sullom Voe oil terminal.


Renewable energies bring hope for a solution, but are also contested. One of the points of tension is the giant wind farm of Viking, a partnership between the SSE Renewables group and the authorities of Shetland.

Scheduled to come into operation in 2023, it will have around 100 wind turbines that will generate enough to supply low-carbon energy to 476,000 homes, and make the Shetland Islands a net exporter of electricity.

But many residents criticize this pharaonic project. “If the officials had provided a plan with a reasonable size, I don’t think anyone would have challenged it. But it’s so huge compared to the size of Shetland, it’s ridiculous, ”says Donnie Morrison. His house, currently on a bucolic hill, will soon be surrounded by wind turbines with heady roaring: a nuisance for which no compensation is currently planned.

Laurie Goodlad, tourist guide, adds that the project is built “in the middle of a fragile and delicate ecosystem” of peat, a carbon sink. For her, Viking is therefore even more destructive to the environment than drilling new contested oil fields like Cambo, off the archipelago.

Residents are also worried that they will not benefit from the energy generated, which will be exported, even if the authorities of Shetland assure that the community will receive dividends from the energy produced, as is the case with oil. Joe Najduch, one of the local leaders of future energy projects, admits that a project like Viking “disrupts life on the island but the benefits seem to exceed the costs”.

Always oil extractions

Another problem: the unions deplore a lack of prospects for employment, while the thousands of very well-paid oil jobs have little chance of being replaced with renewable energies: “it does not take many people to do operate a wind farm once it is built, ”remarks Richard Hardy of prospect UK.

Jerry Gibson, on the other hand, is optimistic. For her, the qualifications of engineers or oil operators are useful to the renewable energy sector and can be adapted to it.

Oil extraction, however, will continue for years to come, as developing oil fields like Cambo show: “If we don’t exploit them, we will have to depend on imports” , says Najduch. In the midst of the energy crisis, the British government maintains that access to national hydrocarbon production is a matter of energy security.


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