When Peter Williams was told his home in the Orkney isles, 10 miles off the northernmost coast of mainland Britain, was the ideal location for solar panelling, he was more than slightly sceptical. “You’re kidding? Solar panels? In Orkney?” he said.

But, ever since Williams was persuaded to take advantage of the government subsidies available back in 2011, his 16 solar panels have been producing up to about 4 kilowatts of power, enough over a year to power a washing machine for 5,000 hours. Even on a cold day in January, they can produce 2-3kW.

Quickly convinced of the benefits of renewable energy, in 2012 Williams leased part of his land to a local company that was installing wind turbines producing 5 kilowatts of power. In return, he receives free electricity, and uses some of it to power a charging point for his electric car.

Williams is just one of many Orcadians to have taken advantage of the Scottish islands’ natural resources to fuel a green revolution in energy supply. Today, there are more than 500 domestic-scale wind turbines across Orkney and its inhabitants boast the highest per capita usage of electric vehicles in the UK.

man in frnt of his house that has solar panels on the roof
Peter Williams’ home is powered by solar and wind energy © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert
man charging an electric vehicle
Jonathan Porterfield has seen EV use soar since arriving on Orkney in 2013 © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

Jonathan Porterfield, founder of the Eco Cars dealership, first arrived in Orkney in 2013 to give a presentation on electric vehicles. At that time, there were only seven EVs on the islands — most of them run by the local council. By his estimation, there are now more than 700.

Today, Porterfield partners with the ReFlex project, which aims to provide an integrated energy system across the Orkney Islands, leasing and selling EVs and connecting renewable energy sources. “Orkney has always been keen to grab any incentive when it comes to renewables,” he says.

For the past decade, 100 per cent of the islands’ electricity needs have been met from renewable sources and, in winter, Orkney produces enough energy to be a net exporter to the UK mainland. “If I went out to my garden and looked around just now, I could see around 20 turbines,” says Williams. “Orkney is lucky from that point of view. But we are also innovative.”

This spirit of innovation in energy dates back to 1951, when the first grid-connected wind turbine in the UK was installed at Costa Head on Mainland, Orkney’s main island. Though the original Costa Head turbine is long gone, the Burgar Hill wind farm — just five miles away — has been producing energy since 1983, when it was first used as an experimental site.

“Even then, Orkney was identified as a location that could be ideal to test the technology,” explains Richard Gauld, managing director of Orkney Sustainable Energy Limited, which designed the Burgar Hill wind farm.

© Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

Over the following 40 years, Gauld saw Orkney transform from a test bed for wind energy under Margaret Thatcher’s government into a mature, and commercially viable, industry.

© Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

Today, the Burgar Hill wind farm (pictured) boasts six wind turbines,

© Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

The Hammars Hill wind farm (pictured) has been producing 4.5MW of energy since 2010, using five Enercon E44 wind turbines designed by architect Norman Foster. Two more turbines are currently proposed.

But renewable energy generation in the Orkney isles has increased so much that it is at risk of becoming a victim of its own success. In 2012, the two 30MW cables connecting the archipelago to the UK mainland reached capacity. With more energy than could be used, the islands had to halt further development of renewables, resulting in several community-owned wind turbines on Orkney being switched off.

“The grid across the UK was never designed for disparate, locally sourced energy,” says Gauld. “The fact we’re going down this renewables route means the grid network does need some major overhaul . . . new projects are required to justify a large-scale grid connection to the isles.”

female employee looking at machines inside an electric power substation
EMEC’s Billia Croo Wave Energy Test site is connected to the substation on Orkney © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

One such project is the massive tidal and wave energy test site developed by the European Marine Energy Centre. Launched in 2003, with Orkney council as a founding partner, the facility was the world’s first for testing wave and tidal energy in real-sea conditions. Today, EMEC also operates two grid-connected substations for its wave and tidal test sites and a hydrogen production plant.

“We have been on something of a war footing about trying to fight back against the climate catastrophe,” says Neil Kermode, managing director of EMEC. “If we don’t fix this, it is going to fix us.”

One of the potential local fixes is Orbital Marine Power’s O2 tidal turbine — the most powerful in the world.

© Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

Positioned 11 nautical miles from land in the Fall of Warness, where tides can exceed 3 metres a second, the 74m-long turbine has been capable of generating 2MW of grid-connected power since the summer of 2021. It has the capacity to meet the electricity needs of around 2,000 UK homes for the next 15 years.

© Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

The Orkney tidal machine

© Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/FT

EMEC’s activities are now attracting interest from Sicily, Hawaii, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand, as more countries seek to exploit wave and tidal power.

One of its proposed new schemes is to demonstrate up to 100 MW of floating wind technologies, from 18km away in the Atlantic Ocean. “The scale of the win for offshore wind is simply enormous.” says Kermode. “The imperative to decouple ourselves from imported fuels is continuously increasing . . . We are seeing the effects of the loss of Russian gas . . . It’s given an imperative for this I’ve not seen in my lifetime.”

© Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

At a Kirkwall community event in January to discuss future opportunities in Orkney’s renewable sector — including plans to make Scapa Flow the heart of an offshore wind industry — the mood was optimistic.

With another 135MW of onshore wind currently on the planning books, Orkney council is waiting for the UK energy regulator Ofgem to approve a new 220MW cable connecting the islands to the mainland. Estimates suggest the new developments could inject up to £800mn into the local economy.

Sweyn Johnston, head of enterprise and economic growth at Orkney Islands Council, is hopeful they will include wave and tidal energy. “We have unrivalled resources but the other side of what makes us successful is the attitude of the community in being keen and willing to test new technologies here,” he says. “Because we are on the periphery, there is a high level of awareness of energy issues amongst the local population.”

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