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."