The cutting edge of renewable energy may be in a place you least expect it—a rugged archipelago off the northern coast of mainland Scotland.
Home to about 22,000 people, the Orkney Islands are a stunning landscape known for having charming villages, ancient Neolithic structures, sheer cliffs, and churning seas. A collection of about 70 islands roughly 10 miles from the mainland, Orkney straddles the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean and, as a result, is home to incredibly strong tides, making it a prime place to harness energy from the sea.
This shouldn’t be surprising—the Orkney Islands have been at the forefront of renewable energy for years. The world’s first grid-connected wind turbine was tested in Orkney in 1951. For more than 15 years, the islands were home to the world’s largest wind turbine. In 2014, the islands produced 104 percent of their needed power through renewable energy sources. And today, they are home to the European Marine Energy Centre, or EMEC, a facility that tests the viability of tide-based energy technologies.
Since its inception more than a decade ago, EMEC has helped install at least 30 different prototypes in Orkney’s waters, from a submerged Archimedes Screw to an underwater kite. According to the Orkney Renewable Energy Forum, there are “more grid-connected ocean energy devices tested in Orkney than at any other single site in the world.”
Most recently, a new prototype has been making a huge splash. This year it was announced that a newly installed tidal energy turbine called the SR2000—which resembles a yellow submarine bobbing on the current—generated an eye-popping three gigawatt-hours of electricity. “[T]hat’s more power generated in 12 months from this single turbine than the entire wave and tidal energy sector has done in Scotland in the 12 years preceding the launch of this turbine,” says Andrew Scott, CEO of Scotrenewables Tidal Power (now Orbital Marine Power), according to the BBC. As the network explains, the single device “can typically generate 7 percent of Orkney’s electricity, but at points has been able to power more than a quarter of the area’s homes.”
And it can do more than create energy from the motion of the ocean—it’s capable of helping produce hydrogen fuel, too. Earlier this year, electricity created by the SR2000 was fed into an electrolyzer and used to split water molecules into their component parts of oxygen and hydrogen. Plans are to use this hydrogen in fuel cells, which can become a supplemental power source for ferries docking in Orkney.
While all of the Orkney generators feed their electricity into the UK’s grid, there are hopes to introduce the technology to other parts of Great Britain's waters—the UK government estimates that wave and tidal energy have the potential to supply 20 percent of the country’s electricity needs.