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Posts Tagged ‘Orkney’

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Photo: Steve Morgan/Alamy Stock Photo
Working on the Pelamis wave power converter in Orkney. The British island is leading the way on renewable energy generation.

This story about Orkney in the British Isles holds lessons for governments everywhere. If you are serious about generating the kind of energy that can save the planet, you have to invest. Orkney did so because energy from the mainland was costly and because the island had a wild amount of wind. But Orkney didn’t stop there, and now it’s leading the way for the rest of the world.

As Robin McKie reports at the Guardian, “It seems the stuff of fantasy. Giant ships sail the seas burning fuel that has been extracted from water using energy provided by the winds, waves and tides. A dramatic but implausible notion, surely. Yet this grand green vision could soon be realised thanks to a remarkable technological transformation that is now under way in Orkney.

“Perched 10 miles beyond the northern edge of the British mainland, this archipelago of around 20 populated islands – as well as a smattering of uninhabited reefs and islets – has become the centre of a revolution in the way electricity is generated. Orkney was once utterly dependent on power that was produced by burning coal and gas on the Scottish mainland and then transmitted through an undersea cable. Today the islands are so festooned with wind turbines, they cannot find enough uses for the emission-free power they create on their own.

“Community-owned wind turbines generate power for local villages; islanders drive nonpolluting cars that run on electricity; devices that can turn the energy of the waves and the tides into electricity are being tested in the islands’ waters and seabed; and – in the near future – car and passenger ferries here will be fuelled not by diesel but by hydrogen, created from water that has been electrolysed using power from Orkney’s wind, wave and tide generators.

“ ‘A low-carbon renewable future, which is much talked about elsewhere, is coming early to Orkney,’ says ethnographer Laura Watts in her book Energy at the End of the World: An Orkney Islands Saga. The book, published by [MIT Press], tells the intriguing tale of how Orcadians have begun to create their own low-carbon future against incredible odds and with only a little help from the mainland. …

“Orkney is leading Britain’s drive toward a carbon-free future. And the critical, vital ingredient in this revolution has been the manner in which islanders have turned the energy of the winds into a reliable source of power. Low-lying and exposed to both the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, Orkney is battered by winds and gales throughout the year. Rainstorms sweep the islands with unbridled savagery, tear down sheds, rip slates from roofs, and can take out metres of coastline in a night. You don’t need an umbrella here, you need a riot shield, one islander told Watts, who has been a regular visitor to Orkney for the past decade. …

“In the early 1980s, Britain began experiments aimed at developing turbines that could turn wind power into electricity – at a test site on Burgar Hill, on Orkney. ‘However, the UK pulled the plug on it and instead the Danes and Germans went ahead and developed wind turbine technology – because their governments invested in it,’ says Watts. ‘They put in millions. The British government did not. We could have had a UK wind energy industry but we just did not invest.’

“The impact of wind turbine technology in Orkney was nevertheless profound and islanders took to its generation in a big way. ‘Orkney used to import its power but now generates, on average over the year, electricity that fulfils 120% of its own needs,’ says Watts. ‘So you have all this energy. The question is: what are you going to do with it?’

“Watts outlines the three options open to islanders: build a new cable so it can export its excess renewable energy to the mainland; use more electricity on the islands; or turn its excess renewable power into another fuel – such as hydrogen – and then store it. Finding the right course is likely to have a profound impact on Britain as the nation looks to the example set by Orkney and embraces its low-carbon future. …

“Energy cannot be simply collected from a wind turbine and exploited later when conditions are calm and windless – because there is as yet no reliable way to store it. It is a basic drawback that Orcadians are now tackling. On the Orkney island of Eday, a device known as an electrolyser – powered by renewable energy sources – splits water into its two elemental components: hydrogen and oxygen. The former can be stored and later burnt to generate electricity when needed. Already a fuel cell – powered by locally derived hydrogen – is being used to generate electricity for berthed vessels on one Orkney pier.”

Pretty exciting stuff, don’t you think? More at the Guardian, here.

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