Orkney Islands provide a glimpse of a renewable future

The winds and stormy seas that dominate the 70 islands that make up the Orkneys has shaped the life of islanders as well as the island itself – most evident from the lack of trees or crops able to grow there.

Today it’s no different; the weather and the climate caused by its open exposure to the Atlantic and North Seas continues to provide inspiration, but this time it’s for a new generation of pioneers using the land and sea to produce renewable electricity.

Despite being on the outer fringes of the British Isles, these islands are producing cutting edge wave and tidal technology, demonstrating innovation that’s putting the UK on the map as a global leader, and regenerating island communities; bringing new jobs, new skills and creating a strong supply chain.

If Scotland is the envy of Europe when it comes to renewable energy then Orkney is the envy of Scotland.

The Scottish National party recently announced the ambitious target of sourcing 100% of our electricity demand from renewables by 2020. Lessons from Orkney about community engagement, supply chain development and research and development will help us reach this target.

Orkney-based companies such as the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) are hugely celebrated for their work in the wave and tidal sector. It is the first centre of its kind to offer developers the opportunity to test full scale prototypes in the sea, and no stranger to world firsts. In 2004 Pelamis, a wave power device became the world’s first to successfully generate electricity for the National Grid. A few weeks ago the world’s largest single-rotor tidal turbine, built by Atlantis, became the first in Scotland to be grid-connected at the marine energy centre. It has also brought visitors and researchers from all over the globe and is attracting people to live, work, and study on the island. EMEC along with companies like Xodus Aurora and ScotRenewables are all employing graduates on Orkney.

These are opportunities which did not previously exist on an island that has traditionally relied on farming and fishing. Where students would have left for university believing they could not return to the Orkneys, there are now real opportunities for returning graduates. Fred. Olsen, the Norwegian-based cruise company that is also involved in renewable energy activities, has just announced four scholarships for Heriot Watt University campus in Stromness. The university is also home to the world’s first MSc in marine renewables, with the first intake of students this year.

Anecdotal evidence from those involved with this new industry suggests that already a couple of hundred people are dependent on renewables for their livelihood. All of these benefits come from just a few installed megawatts (MW) of renewable technology. With plans for 1,600MW by 2020 there is genuine potential for many hundreds of jobs, with talk of commuting workers coming in by boat from other islands and Caithness on the Scottish mainland.

There are plenty of examples of how renewable energy is changing the working lives of Orcadians. Two local companies have purchased new work boats on the demand for diving and other services from companies like Aquamarine who are now looking for crew. Tugs dedicated to the Flotta oil terminal are also likely to be increasingly used on marine renewables in future.

The white van drivers on Orkney aren’t just the construction workers or delivery guys we know so well on the roads of the mainland. On Orkney the white van man can also be a tidal turbine technician, hinting at what Scotland’s workforce may look like in the near future.

It’s the promise of jobs for this and future generations, inward investment from international companies as well as improved infrastructure, (a former naval base at Lyness has received £3m to upgrade the port for future marine developments) that has helped forge support from local people.

The desire for renewables was made clear after a wind turbine in an industrial estate on the edge of Kirkwall provoked an online petition by opponents. This prompted a rival petition from supporters, which got more signatures than the naysayers, with the turbine now constructed and soon to be operational. Figures available in real time on the Orkney Renewable Energy Forum website show that output from commercial, community and agricultural wind turbines is often so high the island is now self-sufficient in electricity, relying less on imported fossil-fuel based power from the mainland.

Like many of Scotland’s islands, tourism plays a key role in the local economy. With so many wave and tidal devices working in the waters, Orkney Council has had to train local tour guides on marine renewables to help deal with questions from tourists. EMEC is now looking at converting office space to help educate and inform the visitors that burst into their office anxious to hear more about these strange looking devices in the waters off the islands.

Like centuries of islanders before them, Orcadians have come to use their natural environment to support and sustain their way of life. If you want to know what Scotland could look like in 10 years then take the 90-minute ferry journey from Scrabster to Stromness and find out.

• Niall Stuart is the chief executive of trade body Scottish Renewables

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