Islanders can’t cash in on their rich seams of renewable power

Scottish island energy would be transformative for the UK, and for the communities that build them. Andy Butterton/PA

The islands off the north and west of Scotland hold the UK’s best renewable resources, yet for more than a decade energy policies have prevented them from realising their full potential.

Due to long out-of-date doctrines from a previous era still in place today, those generating energy in Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles are charged around five times as much per unit for access to the national grid as those generating power elsewhere in northern Scotland. The difference is even more pronounced when compared to southern England where generators can even get paid for using the transmission system £10/kW rather than pay the draconian charges of more than £100/kW.

This uneven charging mechanism, levying progressively higher charges with distance from the capital, was introduced to ensure sufficient power near London and the southeast. But today this anti-competitive, perverse charging mechanism has stifled investment in wind, wave and tidal renewable power in exactly the place where Britain has most of it.

The UK government has been under intense pressure to change the status quo for over a decade. This pressure has been led by the islanders themselves, who know better than anyone the harm to economic development arising from the charging scheme. In their support are regional enterprise organisation Highlands and Islands Enterprise, industry groups such as Scottish Renewables and the Scottish Government itself.

And it seems that their efforts may pay off. There is talk of an island generation tariff to reimburse energy generators on the islands for the excessive charges they pay. A solution of sorts, while it would leave the widely discredited charging scheme in place, it would lift one of the key barriers to significant further renewables investment on the islands.

This is important not just to the islands but to the UK as a whole. The amount of clean energy the three island groups are capable of producing would have profound effects on the country’s electricity sector.

Top quality wind and waves

At the turn of the 21st century, each of the island groups assessed their energy generation potential, taking into account planning, cost and infrastructure issues. The results showed that together the islands have the potential for 15GW of wind, wave and tidal power – more than all Britain’s nuclear power stations combined. With an average wind turbine producing around 1MW, this would require 15,000 turbines, covering the islands like a forest. Instead, different technology would be used to suit the area. Wind and wave power would dominate the Western Isles, exposed to the Atlantic, for example, while in Orkney renewable generation would take advantage of the strong tides.

What’s significant is this island energy’s reliability and availability compared to renewables elsewhere. One of the most quoted problems detractors find in renewable energy is its variability - there is no solar power at night, turbines won’t turn on a windless day. This fails to take into account the fact that our energy use is extremely variable, and that our fossil-fuel and non-renewable system has been designed with 100% redundancy. Power stations need maintenance, or suddenly break down, and often are not at all good at coping with sudden power surges - just when they are needed most.

Regardless, it is clear that renewable energy from the islands will be available in larger quantities and for more of the time than renewable energy from elsewhere in the UK.

Winds blow so strongly and constantly that capacity factors (a measure of turbine efficiency) between 40% and 55% are possible onshore, with offshore sites likely to be even more productive. Compare this to sites in southern England and the Midlands that sometimes fail to reach even 20%.

Similarly levels of wave energy around the islands’ more exposed coasts should be twice as energetic as around Cornwall, for instance. The Scottish tides too have special qualities. While the window of opportunity to generate power with the daily tides will be the same as further south, the strength of tides in a small area especially around Orkney, and the number of suitable locations for equipment, mean that tidal output in general will be greater than achievable elsewhere.

An added bonus is that when these three forms of energy join forces in one area they provide their own redundancy and increase reliability. Any remaining dips in energy generation could be managed through additional near-generation storage (eg large batteries, pump storage, heat stores) and customer based storage/demand management mechanisms (eg smart electricity supply, large immersion heaters, household batteries).

Grid access: paying to provide

However, none of this means a thing unless the question of connecting the islands to the national grid is addressed. Orkney and the Western Isles have small connections that desperate need upgrading to cope with existing demand, let alone for a future where large amounts of electricity flows the other way. Despite the problems that have curtailed major investments, small scale projects have grown. Orkney’s electricity, for example, is generated almost entirely from renewables. Shetland is not connected, though that may come with the Viking wind farm project underway on the isles.

One might expect planning and executing these details to be a strategic decision of government. In fact the current system for triggering the building of transmission-scale grid connections relies upon a generator of suitable scale making an application. This is itself costly, and leaves the generator liable for an escalating set of costs. Small wonder that, together with the prospect of paying five times the grid access charge paid by generators in the south, no firm has stepped forward.

The energy dividend and way forward

Why is this so important to the islands themselves? Economic development - jobs and wealth. Any island community is well aware of its assets and its limitations, and when a new opportunity knocks there is a strong incentive to make the most of it. Look at the case of Orkney. Here, the 17 inhabited islands of the archipelago have been at the vanguard of the renewables revolution for decades. Here you’ll find early 1980s prototype wind turbines, a 3MW turbine that was the world’s largest until the late 1990s, the world’s first wave and tidal technology test centre, and now over 70MW of onshore wind generation mostly owned by local communities. Renewables support more than 300 jobs, a flourishing university campus, and successful global business activity with an annual income of around £20million.

All this from an awful lot of hard work from a lot of people, and more than £400m invested into renewables in Orkney over the last 13 years. More remarkably still more than £100m of that has come from the local community itself.

If the UK government provides the right incentives and levels the playing field so that energy from areas further from the south-east of England can compete, the country could benefit from up to 15GW of the best renewable energy available, and the islands would benefit from rare economic opportunities. Rather than waiting for it to happen the people of these communities have been at the forefront of driving for change and investing in their own future. Were policymakers to show the same zeal, the UK electricity market would be cleaner, greener and probably cheaper.