Leslie Riddoch: Orkney has an incredible, valuable and mixed energy resource – but has a high rate of fuel poverty. The National Grid is a centralised system, designed a century back to shift energy out from centrally located fossil-fuel powered plants, to folk at the margins. The energy pricing structure is the same. It penalises energy producers (even green ones) who are distant from markets, so it costs 20 times more to join the grid on Orkney than in urban areas further south. Of course, Orcadians don’t really have to worry about that, because for a decade, their grid connection has been absolutely full. And since you don’t generally get cash for renewables unless you can feed into the grid, Orkney’s efforts to develop as a world-leading, green energy hub have been stymied. But the UK Government controls energy policy – so why has it not coughed up the money to build a new subsea cable connecting Orkney to the mainland grid? Ah, if only life was that simple. These islands have produced more than 100% of their electricity needs since 2013 – all from renewable energy. In 2016, they actually produced 120% of their own fairly modest needs. So what did they do with the extra, since they couldn’t feed it into our so-called “National” grid? Well for a time, the surplus was “flared off” using heaters running in empty barns — a terrible waste since the average Orcadian was stuck in fuel poverty. There was talk about using heat during calving to save animals lives, creating insect farms and building a hot tub complex. But none of these could really mop up the amount of spare energy circulating round Orkney because of the massive growth in micro-renewables. Anyone with the cash – especially farmers using a lot of electricity – had taken up gran ts for individual wind turbines and PV solar panels to heat water and power electric cars. By 2016 there were over 1000 individual generators in a community of just 10,000 properties, causing instability in the local energy network. But instead of investing in that much-needed subsea cable to solve the problem, the energy authorities introduced “curtailment” instead. Basically, since 2012, the most recent energy installations on Orkney has been ordered to shut down when too much energy is being produced – it’s called the “last-in, first-off” rule. Some renewables producers have been switched off 40-50% of the time, without compensation. You couldn’t make this situation up. Swedish Gotland, the largest island in the Baltic Sea has three 60-mile subsea energy cables to the Swedish mainland allowing it to transmit a total of 320 MW. Yet Gotland has only a fraction of Orkney’s wind and marine energy assets and is six times further from Sweden than Orkney is from Scotland . It’s been a shameful situation that even local MP Alistair Carmichael was unable to change when he was Secretary of State for Scotland in the ConDem coalition and while fellow LibDem Ed Davey was UK Energy Secretary. This is where the wiliness of islanders comes in. The Orkney Renewable Energy Forum was set up to lobby for change and find better outlets for surplus energy and they’ve done rather well. Orkney now has the highest percentage of electric vehicles in any Scottish local authority and extracts energy from the North Sea, to heat public buildings. But far more ambitious, the Orcadians are now using spare wind and tidal energy on Eday to create hydrogen and use it to fuel ferries docked in Kirkwall. Hydrogen has so far lagged behind battery technology in the race to become the dominant form of energy storage. Battery power has high profile advocates like Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and is far more energy efficient. But hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant element in the universe, it creates nothing but water and heat as by-products in electricity production and advocates say hydrogen fuel cells are a better power solution for trucks, ships and trains. In short, many countries have tried to make a commercial breakthrough with hydrogen – but thanks to the ridiculous constraints on exporting energy to the grid like islands in any normal country, Orkney might be closest to cracking it.
The National 24th May 2018 read more »