Winter, with its roaring winds and plunging temperatures, is the season which reminds us most visibly of the relative fragility of our electricity supplies.
But while the pylons striding across Scotland are battered by gales and teams of maintenance engineers fight blizzards to keep our lights on, an even more significant battle is raging inside those highly-strung cables.
When power stations like Longannet and Peterhead were built in the 1970s and 80s, electricity was generated close to areas of high consumption. Power didn't need to travel far.
Today, Longannet is one of the top 30 polluting power plants in the EU, and the world has recognised our carbon emissions are simply unsustainable if we want to mitigate climate change and its devastating effects.
Much of Scotland's tremendous green energy resource lies away from our largest towns and cities, and transferring the vast amounts of power produced by hydropower stations and wind turbines to where it is needed calls for a step-change in the way we work with energy.
If we are to maximise the benefits of moving towards decentralised local renewables generation, and away from more traditional sources of power, we must change the way in which we transmit and distribute that power across the network.
Scotland's islands have some of the best wind, wave and tidal resources in Europe and it is particularly exciting to see them leading the way with innovative solutions to these thorny challenges.
Orkney already generates more renewable electricity than it can use. But like most of the Scottish islands it remains 'locked in' - unable to reach the rest of the UK network at all for lack of a fit-for-purpose interconnector cable.
These challenges, though, are not insurmountable. And in finding solutions we can also find new opportunities.
In 2009, Orkney became home to the UK's first smart grid, which has allowed increased deployment of renewables generation at a fraction of the cost of transmission hardware upgrades.
The project saw SSE Power Distribution working with the University of Strathclyde on what is now known as an Active Network Management approach, where generators control their output, in real time, to match available network capacity.
At times of peak demand - when kettles are switched on during the break in Coronation Street, for example - every joule of energy produced by Orkney's renewable energy fleet could potentially be used. A short while later, when TVs are turned off, that demand falls - but power is still being produced.
This situation, exacerbated by "pinch points" in the transmission network, means generators must shut down to prevent damage to the grid.
The Active Network Management system allows power flows at several points on the network to be monitored, and power flows from multiple new renewable generators to be controlled without being closed off.
By 2012, almost 20 megawatts of new renewable generation has agreed contracts to connect to the Orkney system as a result of the smart grid, now operated by University of Strathclyde spin-off company Smarter Grid Solutions.
The connection of this level of renewable generation on Orkney by conventional network upgrading and reinforcement would have cost around 30 million, and would have meant a long wait and substantial environmental impact. In contrast, the total cost of developing and delivering the Orkney Smart Grid has been around 500,000.
On Shetland, a similar approach using Active Network Management and an expanded district heating network is currently being trialled, and is expected to bring benefits to more than 700 homes which are part of the scheme.
Controlling how energy is generated, and how it is used, is a relatively simple process, but it is only by tying those two activities together that we can start to reap the broader benefits of our investment in renewable energy.
It is heartening to see our islands leading the way in that process. With proper connections to the mainland grid, these remote parts of the UK could really begin to deliver on their enormous green energy potential.
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14 August 2017
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