Tucked away in a cupboard of Jonathan Porterfield’s house on Scotland’s northern Orkney archipelago is a glimpse of a future, smarter, energy system.
Among the clutter of domestic life is a small box with a digital link to a wind turbine on a nearby island. When there is not enough demand in the local grid for the turbine’s electricity, the box triggers “phase change” thermal batteries to soak up the excess power and store it as latent heat.
“In the future there are going to be seismic shifts in how we distribute electricity,” said Porterfield, who also uses conventional batteries to store power from his rooftop solar panels. “What I have here is perhaps just the very early beginnings of what that might look like.”
For many in more populous parts of the UK, Orkney might seem an unlikely testing ground for the technologies needed to decarbonise the energy system in the face of climate change.
But over the past two decades the windswept island group has become a hotbed of innovation ranging from the pioneering deployment of marine renewables, to the more prosaic problem of how to manage the output peaks and troughs of a large wind power sector.
Experts say Orkney’s experience offers many lessons for larger grids, across the UK and elsewhere.
Stewart Reid, head of future networks at Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks, the arm of energy group SSE that runs the Orkney grid, said the archipelago was a “really good test environment”.
Orkney was a decade earlier than other parts of the national grid in experiencing the challenges created by increasing use of renewable power. And rich wind resources and limited electrical cable connections to the UK mainland forced an early focus on making the most of existing infrastructure to free up capacity for more turbines, Reid said.
SSE worked with Strathclyde university to develop an Active Network Management (ANM) approach that improves monitoring of grid power flows and tells generators how to match output to capacity in real time.
The university spinout company that delivered the system, Smarter Grid Solutions, was acquired by Japan’s Mitsubishi Electric in August. “Orkney has been really influential. Active network management systems for generation are now standard throughout the whole UK and well beyond,” Reid said.
But while ANM allowed an additional 22MW of generating capacity to be built in Orkney, such approaches could only provide a “breathing space” for grids that needed to increase capacity to cope with increased demand for electricity and the growing reliance on intermittent renewable power.
“What we have learned from Orkney is that that is a temporary solution,” Reid said. “Eventually you have to invest in your network”.
Attention is also increasingly turning to making the best use of strained grid capacity by better matching demand for electricity with supply. An EU-funded scheme, for example, provided the thermal batteries and controller in Porterfield’s cupboard.
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Porterfield is outraged that many on Orkney struggle to afford adequate heating while turbines are often switched off for lack of demand. He yearns for the day when individual households will be able and incentivised to combine with others to ensure they all have power when they need it.
Porterfield is also working with a £29m ReFLEX Orkney project funded by UK Research and Innovation, a government body, that aims to combine local electricity, transport and heat networks into one digitally connected and controllable system.
Electric cars and household batteries, for example, could eventually automatically recharge at times of high supply, while also providing back-up supply to the grid when winds falter or demand peaks.
But Gareth Davies, chair of environmental consultancy Aquatera, a lead project partner, said it was proving much harder than expected to get necessary approvals to connect up elements of the system, such as household batteries.
He cited consumer protections designed for the existing market as an example of barriers to change, despite the UK’s avowed national mission of curbing climate change.
“The system is not set up for the transformation that’s needed — and that’s not just the physical electrical system, it’s the politics and the regulation around energy delivery,” Davies said.
Project supporters say Orkney is an ideal place to learn such lessons. High local energy prices mean many of its 22,000 residents are open to options such as electric vehicles — now common across the archipelago — while a relatively close-knit community helps bring people on board with new schemes.
“You can try things out here at a meaningful scale . . . and if they work you can learn from that and then apply it more widely elsewhere,” said Neil Kermode, managing director of Orkney’s European Marine Energy Centre, which plays a central role in energy innovation on the islands.
Orkney’s island geography also makes it a good place to try out new kit. The archipelago last year hosted the first UK trials of a hybrid electric aircraft on a viable regional airline route and a five-month sea test of a new 38-tonne wave power machine backed by government agency Wave Energy Scotland.
It is tidal energy that is drawing most attention, however. Since July, developer Orbital Marine Power has been operating the world’s most powerful tidal turbine, the O2 commercial demonstrator, in the fast-flowing currents off the Orkney island of Eday.
Unlike wind, tidal power offers predictable power output, and Orbital hopes successor machines to the O2 will tap newly ringfenced UK support for tidal projects to be allocated in 2022.
Daniel Wise, Orbital’s head of offshore operations, said that unlike seabed tidal turbines, the O2 could be easily towed into position and was designed for easy access and low-cost maintenance.
“What we’re doing now is the hard yards of getting our turbines tested,” Wise said during a visit to the 2MW, 74-metre machine, which is capable of supplying the equivalent of 2,000 homes with clean electricity.
“We’re getting hit by storms, we’re learning things, we’re fixing things, and the next turbines will be all the better for that,” he said.
In September, the European Commission approved more than €20m in funding for an Orbital-led European consortium to accelerate the commercial deployment of tidal power and integrate it with hydrogen production.
There is already a plant on Eday to produce hydrogen and Orkney has been pioneering the use of the gas as an energy store and fuel.
Progress has been slow, but Kermode at Emec said he was convinced that either hydrogen or ammonia — which is produced by combining the gas with nitrogen — would be major future exports for the islands.
On the Orkney island of South Ronaldsay, Pete Oswald, managing director of IGTL Technology, is working on more exotic fuels. IGTL has developed new catalyst technology to apply to a long-established process for making synthetic gasoline from hydrogen combined with carbon oxide extracted from the air.
In November, gasoline produced using IGTL’s technology was used by the Royal Air Force to power what the Guinness Book of Records recorded as the world’s first successful flight using only synthetic fuel.
In an interview in his expansive shed, where chickens subject to an avian flu lockdown clucked softly, Oswald said Orkney’s combination of existing supply chains, experienced workforce and general enthusiasm for energy innovation had greatly helped development of the fuel.
“The civic society here is encouraging . . . they want the renewables to work,” he said. “This is the place.”
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