On an island community in the wild seas north of Scotland, the last frontier in green energy is being realized.
There are only a handful of places on Earth where everyone lives off 100 percent renewable energy, such as Denmark's Samsø Island and, on the other side of the world, Tasmania. Scotland's Orkney Islands are amongst this esteemed handful, but they go one step further. They have surplus sustainable energy.
On the windswept Orkney Islands, onshore wind turbines dot the landscape, working along side wave and tidal generators, to supply Orkney’s 22,000 inhabitants with emission-free energy. So prodigious is the islands’ green power that, since 2013, they have been meeting more than 100 percent of local demand, with the excess exported to the mainland via subsea cable.
Sadly, the cable connection isn’t large enough to handle the full extent of Orkney’s green output, requiring turbines and other clean sources to be powered down for fear of overloading the grid. For islanders, it’s a costly and frustrating situation, seeing their sustainable energy production routinely curtailed.
However, the islanders have a trail-blazing plan.
For decades, the world has dreamed of a future powered by clean, limitless hydrogen energy. The most abundant element in the universe, it emits only pure water when burned. But hydrogen isn’t easy to acquire. Doing so requires vast amounts of electricity to break the bonds that bind it to other chemicals, thereby nullifying its potential as a decarbonizing resource.
Unless, of course, you happen to have a surplus of green energy on hand - so much that it’s going to waste anyway, and could be channeled into pulling the “H” out of H2O.
The Orkney Islands have two specialist plants that are powered by all that excess green energy and are capable of splitting H2O into its elemental components, oxygen and hydrogen. The O is released harmlessly back into the atmosphere, while the H is funneled into a tank, ready to be tapped as an energy source at a later date. This is hydrogen’s great advantage: unlike the wind or the tides, it can be stored.
The hydrogen containers are then transported around the islands for a variety of applications, such as heating a local school; powering a wave and tide research facility; and charging the island’s plentiful electric vehicles and retrofitted hydrogen-powered vans. This all takes skill and know-how which, in itself, is a valuable commodity. But it's just the start.
Work is underway on what will be one of the world’s first hydrogen-fueled seafaring ferries, connecting Orkney’s residents, scattered across two dozen small islands.The current diesel-powered passenger boats will shortly be replaced and the islands are even testing a short-haul hydrogen-powered airplane. Once both ferry and plane are operational, the Orkneys will be truly carbon neutral.
“The know-how to produce hydrogen fuel, store it, move it around safely, that’s something Orcadians have gained thanks to the various projects being run,” says Nigel Holmes, leader of the Scottish Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association. “Now, others around the world are looking to Orkney for practical answers to help develop their own zero-emission local energy systems using hydrogen and renewables.”