A tech revolution – and an abundance of wind and waves – mean that the people of Orkney now produce more electricity than they can use
It seems the stuff of fantasy. Giant ships sail the seas burning fuel that has been extracted from water using energy provided by the winds, waves and tides. A dramatic but implausible notion, surely. Yet this grand green vision could soon be realised thanks to a remarkable technological transformation that is now under way in Orkney.
Perched 10 miles beyond the northern edge of the British mainland, this archipelago of around 20 populated islands – as well as a smattering of uninhabited reefs and islets – has become the centre of a revolution in the way electricity is generated. Orkney was once utterly dependent on power that was produced by burning coal and gas on the Scottish mainland and then transmitted through an undersea cable. Today the islands are so festooned with wind turbines, they cannot find enough uses for the emission-free power they create on their own.
Community-owned wind turbines generate power for local villages; islanders drive nonpolluting cars that run on electricity; devices that can turn the energy of the waves and the tides into electricity are being tested in the islands’ waters and seabed; and – in the near future – car and passenger ferries here will be fuelled not by diesel but by hydrogen, created from water that has been electrolysed using power from Orkney’s wind, wave and tide generators.
“A low-carbon renewable future, which is much talked about elsewhere, is coming early to Orkney,” says ethnographer Laura Watts in her book Energy at the End of the World: An Orkney Islands Saga. The book, published by MIT Press next month, tells the intriguing tale of how Orcadians have begun to create their own low-carbon future against incredible odds and with only a little help from the mainland.
And that may come as a surprise, says Watts, a senior lecturer at the School of GeoSciences, Edinburgh University. “When people think of future technologies or innovation, they assume it has all got to be happening in cities,” Watts told me when we met earlier this month. “But this revolution – in renewable energy – is being done in a place that lies at the very edge of the nation.”
The idea that such an intellectual revolution could occur in a place closer to the Arctic Circle than it is to London may seem unexpected. But Orkney turns out to have a long history of generating ideas that are exported to the south. At the Ness of Brodgar, excavations at a recently discovered neolithic ceremonial complex show there was flourishing culture on the islands long before the construction of Stonehenge, Avebury and other giant edifices in the south. Neolithic grooved pottery and the first henges were conceived in Orkney before they were exported to the rest of ancient Britain. “We need to turn the map of Britain upside down when we consider the neolithic and shrug off our south-centric attitudes,” says Nick Card, Brodgar’s director of excavations.
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