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Wind, waves and tides – the Orkney Islands have it all, but they’ll need a little help to make a d

Look across the dark water from Stromness in the Orkney Islands, and you see the twinkling lights of the Flotta Oil Terminal, dominating the horizon and local economy. Yet just over the next headland is a harbinger of a very different future - a wave-power generator on test.

Orkney continues to reinvent itself both above and below water, from a Pictish settlement to a naval bastion, and now from a hub of the North Sea oil industry to the front line of Britain's low-carbon power revolution. These remote islands have wind, waves and tides - the raw material of renewable energy - in abundance. But, until now, growth has been hampered by the limited capacity of the grid to carry electricity back to the rest of the UK from a series of islands that are physically closer to Norway than to London.

As the site for the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), Orkney is already an international hub for research into tidal and wave power. The Pentland Firth, the turbulent waters dividing Orkney from the north-eastern coast of Scotland, has some of the fastest tides in the world, with speeds of up to ten knots. If this elemental force could be tapped, it could produce up to ten gigawatts of power - more than twice the electricity consumption of Scotland. But with research on tidal energy still in its infancy, no one is quite ready for it.

Strong tides are also found at the Fall of Warness, off the island of Eday, where they reach speeds of almost eight knots. This is where the EMEC (a private company owned a third each by the Carbon Trust, Orkney Islands Council and the Highlands and Islands Enterprise development trust) built its tidal-energy testing site. Private developers lease EMEC infrastructure to test their devices and measure the quality and quantity of the electricity produced. The Carbon Trust estimates that marine energy around the UK could produce one-fifth of the national electricity supply, on a par with nuclear power.

But generating electricity from the ocean is not just a matter of locating the strongest tides and installing a machine. The sea is unforgiving and the tides flow in both directions. "We're building an industry in places that, historically, mariners would have avoided," says the EMEC's managing director, Neil Kermode.

Threats to survival

Along with strong waves and tides, Orkney's access to sheltered water and human resources helped it secure the EMEC bid. The locale boasts marine operations expertise, including diving and remotely operated underwater vehicles and harbour tugs. Meanwhile, the Stromness campus of Heriot-Watt University and various Orcadian businesses, such as the environmental consultancy Aquatera, offer experience in renewables. Gareth Davies, managing director of Aquatera, estimates that the renewables sector in Orkney employs about 180 people; that includes about six organisations with more than ten staff each.

Heriot-Watt, whose roots are in Edinburgh, has offered a Master's degree in renewable energy since 2004 and graduates provide a valuable pool of talent for Orkney's renewables industry. The oil and gas industry is another source of talent, as many of the skills are transferable. Sandy Kerr, a Heriot-Watt lecturer and member of the Orkney Renewable Energy Forum, says there is a push to ensure that the UK owns the technology. He points out that Britain had a lead in wind energy in the early 1980s.

“Germany and the Netherlands commercial­ised it and there are now 60,000 people employed on the Continent building these things [wind turbines] and exporting them back to Britain," Kerr says. "There is a desire not to let that happen again with wave and tidal."

Although they are late to it, wind's track record as a mature technology is precisely the appeal for small island communities that can't afford to waste money on speculative projects. For the people of Orkney, sustainability is not just an abstract notion. Most of the islands are flat and close to sea level, and so Orcadians expect to see the effects of climate change soon. But something even more immediate threatens their survival - as young people move away, the islands' populations are dwindling. On the smaller islands, the populations are in the hundreds. The term "mainland" refers to the largest of the islands, where Stromness and the capital, Kirkwall, are sited.

Orkney is so windswept that the only place where trees grow is in the shelter of St Magnus, the medieval cathedral in Kirkwall. In summer there is a constant breeze and in winter the winds regularly reach 60mph. Commercial investors have already harnessed this resource, building wind turbines throughout. This is unwelcome to some, because there is nowhere to hide turbines in terrain as open as Orkney's.

Yet, on the smaller islands, people see the commercial turbines as inspirations for building their own. They hope community-owned generators can boost the local economy and help solve social problems such as fuel poverty by providing funds to insulate the old stone farmhouses. Already the island of Westray has built a community-owned turbine with money from the Big Lottery Fund. The 900Kw generator has pumped power into the National Grid since the beginning of October 2009. Meanwhile, neighbouring islands, including Stronsay, Eday and Sanday, also have plans in various stages of funding and development approval.

Claiming a share

Despite the disappointing outcome from the UN climate-change talks in Copenhagen last month, the UK has lofty goals of its own. It aims to reduce its carbon emissions by 80 per cent on 1990 levels by 2050, while the Scottish government intends 50 per cent of the electricity generated in Scotland to come from renewable sources by 2020.

Orkney is laying claim to a share of the renewables boom. Yet the islands can generate more electricity than the undersea cables can carry, and generators also pay a higher rate to deliver power to the grid than competitors on mainland Britain, with price breaks available to offshore windfarms but not islands. Some people suggest exporting electricity to Norway instead, while others propose converting the energy to hydrogen and exporting it by ship.

Yet progress is being made. In late 2009 the Scottish and Southern Energy electricity company announced it had deployed "smart grid" technology in Orkney, allowing greater numbers of renewables generators to connect at a faster rate and lower cost. The company also won a €75m grant from the European Parliament to build a transmission hub in the Pentland Firth, with contracts expected to be signed this month. Then, on 6 January, the Scottish government approved a major upgrade to the Beauly-Denny power line, between Inverness and Falkirk, to improve the flow of power from north to south.

With its tremendous natural and human resources, the Orkney Islands could be a significant plank of Britain's energy platform. But it will need help from Westminster and Holyrood to make that happen.

Motion of the ocean

Tidal power works in a similar way to wind energy on land. The tides turn giant underwater turbines and undersea cables transport the energy produced back to shore, where it is converted to a suitable voltage if necessary and fed into the National Grid.

Wave power involves harnessing oscillation - a device is mounted to the sea floor or cliff walls, or held in place with stiff cables, and part of it bobs up and down with the waves to produce the power. Strong tides are not commonplace, so globally there is a greater number of places suitable for producing wave power.

Neil Kermode of the European Marine Energy Centre says it is not possible for wildlife such as seals or marine birds to get caught in the wave-power devices, and the company is monitoring effects of the tidal turbines. So far, it seems that animals are intelligent enough to avoid them; more curious creatures make their investigations from downstream.

The commercial potential of marine energy is not yet known, though Kermode speculates the technology could be making money, albeit on a small scale, within four years and using mass production within 20 years.

If you compare the position of renewables today with that of aviation, "We are about where the Wright brothers were," Kermode says. "We've just proved that heavier-than-air flight is possible, but we've got a huge distance to go before we get to what we'd regard as commercial passenger aircraft."

Caitlin Fitzsimmons

This article first appeared in the 18 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Palin Power

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 18 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Palin Power