From oil to renewables, a wind of change is blowing over the Scottish islands
Lerwick (United Kingdom) (AFP)
In the far north of the UK, where the wind blows and the sea rages, the islands of Orkney and Shetland have long relied on oil and gas for their prosperity.
But as supplies dwindle and the fight against climate change becomes more urgent, the islands off the north-east coast of Scotland are increasingly turning to renewables.
Daniel Wise is responsible for offshore operations at Orbital Marine Power, a start-up that is testing its 02 tidal energy generator off Orkney.
The submerged propellers spin with the current, producing enough electricity to power some 2,000 homes.
“Half a billion tonnes of seawater is moving around this site per hour, so it’s great for testing these turbines,” Wise told AFP.
On Orkney and Shetland, which is closer to Norway than to London, giant standing stones are a visual reminder of the ancient Neolithic past.
Crisp white wind turbines are now seen as a symbol of a brighter and more sustainable future.
“A lot of people describe Orkney as a living laboratory,” said Jerry Gibson, operations technician at the European Marine Energy Center (EMEC), which tests wave and tidal energy converters on Orkney Islands.
“And we have a lot of test sites and various different companies all working together… in this kind of green economy that we have going on.”
EMEC itself produces ‘green’ hydrogen from renewable sources via a tidal turbine and electrolysis using seawater from Eday, one of the 20 inhabited islands of Orkney.
The hydrogen is pressurized and transported 26 kilometers south to the port of Kirkwall, where it is transformed into electricity to power the ferries at the quayside.
– Reliability –
With its abundant natural resources from wind and waves, the Orkney Islands – home to some 22,000 people – produce more energy than they consume.
“Hydrogen is important because it’s another way to store energy rather than using batteries or going straight to the power grid,” Gibson said.
EMEC is also testing wave energy generators in the laboratory, which are more complex to model than tidal energy.
On the Isle of Yell, some 100 miles northeast of the former Viking stronghold of the Shetlands, another company, Nova Innovation, also relies on the ebb and flow of the tides.
“The beauty of tidal power is that it is totally predictable,” said Tom Wills, the company’s offshore director.
“So I can tell you tomorrow or 2,000 years from now, how much tide is going to pass through that channel over there, our energy resources are not dependent on the weather.”
This predictability is crucial for the stability of energy supply as economies attempt to move away from highly polluting hydrocarbons.
Nova has set up a charging station in the village of Cullivoe on Yell for electric vehicles, powered by its underwater turbines.
Fiona Nicholson, who lives nearby, is a regular user.
“Where we live we look at the sea and we hear it every day and we know the power of it,” she said.
“So it’s nice to be able to use it to charge the car for all of my long trips.”
The Sullom Voe oil terminal on the main island of Shetland is one of the largest in Europe. Locals recognize that drilling and infrastructure in the North Sea has brought benefits.
Proceeds from operations have funded roads, schools and sports centers, as well as supported thousands of jobs for nearly 23,000 Shetlanders.
But also, residents know that time is running out and that renewable energies offer a potential solution, even if some projects are contested.
– Worse than oil? –
One of these projects is the giant Viking Wind Farm, a partnership between SSE Renewables and the Shetland authorities.
It is expected to enter service in 2023 and will have 103 turbines generating enough low-carbon energy to power nearly 476,000 homes.
The project could save half a million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year, according to the company, and make Shetlands a net exporter of electricity.
But many residents are critical and have fought a long legal battle against it since the building permit was first approved in 2012.
“If they had originally come with a reasonably sized wind farm, I don’t think anyone would have objected,” said Donnie Morrison, whose hillside home will soon be surrounded by roaring turbines.
“But it’s so huge, it’s ridiculous.”
Laurie Goodlad, a tour guide, said the project would remove hundreds of thousands of tonnes of peatlands – a recognized carbon sink.
“They basically dig into the lungs of the planet,” she said.
Despite assurances that the excavated peat will be reused and no construction on pristine bogs, opponents even claim that Viking will be more destructive to the environment than the controversial drilling of new oil fields such as Cambo in the northwest of Shetland.
“I see Cambo as a lesser threat than Viking Energy,” Goodlad said.
“Cambo and Viking Energy, at the end of the day, are doing the same thing: they are taking fossil fuels out of the ground.”
Residents are also concerned that they will not benefit from electricity exports, despite assurances that the community will receive dividends, as it does from oil.
– Transferable skills –
At the Shetland Islands Council, energy project manager Joe Najduch admitted that the Viking project had divided public opinion.
“Obviously, developing an onshore wind farm can be quite disruptive for the island, but the benefits seem to outweigh the costs,” he said.
Another problem, according to unions, is the lack of job prospects, with thousands of well-paying oil jobs unlikely to all be replaced by renewables.
Viking Energy says around 140 people will be needed to work on the project and some 35 permanent jobs will be created, but unions say that’s not enough.
Gibson of EMEC is more optimistic that the skills of the oil and gas industry are transferable.
At the same time, not switching to renewables would cause its own problems, Najduch said.
“Oil and gas could last in Shetlands until around 2050,” he said. “If we don’t develop it (renewables), we will depend more on imports.”
© 2021 AFP