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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

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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