Orkney: Turning the tides to renewables

EMEC at Orkney: Turning the tides to renewables
Image: Orbital O2

The small archipelago off Scotland is not only Europe’s go-to hub for marine energy innovation, it is also home to projects for hydrogen, wind and electric vehicles. Pamela Largue finds out more.

“I find living in the Orkney Islands very inspiring. It allows you to glimpse into the future, to see how we can make energy transition work.”

So says Neil Kermode, managing director of the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), about what it feels like to live on Orkney, an archipelago off the northeastern coast of Scotland that is not only home to EMEC, but to a myriad of energy research and innovation projects.

This article was originally published in Power Engineering International 4-2021.

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With electric vehicles to the left, tidal energy turbines to the right and 750 domestic wind turbines in between, Kermode describes the island home of EMEC as the place we’re all going to go. “It’s encouraging to see there’s a way of making this all work.”

Established in 2003, EMEC Ltd is the world’s first facility for demonstrating and testing wave and tidal energy converters – technologies that generate electricity by harnessing the power of waves and tidal streams in the sea.

EMEC is trying to demonstrate what works and what doesn’t work in a way that makes a positive difference

The centre offers purpose-built, open-sea testing facilities for prototype technologies. They operate two grid-connected, accredited test facilities where larger prototypes are put through their paces, as well as two scale test sites where smaller scale devices, or those at an earlier stage in their development, can gain real sea experience in less challenging conditions.

EMEC then and now

Kermode explains that EMEC began at the turn of the century. People had been interested in the concept of capturing the power of the sea for a few decades by this point.

The UK government was keen to kickstart a marine energy industry in the UK, and they agreed that a test site – which could act as a catalyst for economic development, supply chain development, and innovation, would be the best way to do so.

They concluded that Orkney would be the perfect home for a marine energy test centre.

Says Kermode: “We’re on the national grid, the sea bed slopes reasonably fast, and has reasonably large port infrastructure.

“EMEC allows people with devices and technical kit to come and plug onto the ends of our wire. It’s the easiest possible way to get their kit into the water.”

EMEC is trying to demonstrate what works and what doesn’t work in a way that makes a positive difference. Kermode explains: “Firstly, Orkney removes itself from being a part of the problem by decarbonising what it’s doing and secondly, we try to find ways that are replicable, driving development and warning others of potential pitfalls.”

Image: CorPower Ocean

“People want to see that things are happening and feel a sense of hope about our current situation.

“If we think it’s all going downhill, it’s soul destroying. If you know people are trying to develop this tech, there are jobs and careers to be had, families to be raised – you’re inspiring people to make change. You can’t threaten them to change – it doesn’t stick. That’s what EMEC is trying to do. Inspire change.”

Green hydrogen

Since 2013, Orkney has generated over 100% of it’s electricity demand from renewables, however the grid connection to Orkney is limited as it was not designed to feed industrial quantities of power from the islands into the national grid.

So a few years ago, EMEC started looking at different options to store locally-generated renewable power to ensure Orkney could take full advantage of its renewable potential.

This led to EMEC setting up an onshore hydrogen test centre adjacent to its Fall of Warness tidal test site.

“Our substation takes the energy from the tides to the hydrogen system, electrolyser, compressor, storage and then transports it to other locations.”

EMEC, together with project partners, is exploring hydrogen generation from tidal and wind energy and using it in different test scenarios.

Hydrogen is being used to run a fuel cell to cold-iron ferries and as gas in electric cars with hydrogen fuel cell range extenders. EMEC is also looking to use hydrogen in heating at local schools, and investigating projects using hydrogen in a CHP unit at the airport to supply heat and power to the airport.

Marine energy is right in the core of the multifaceted attack we will need to make on decarbonising our energy system as a whole.

There is also a parallel stream looking at how hydrogen can be used for aviation, using hydrogen in a plane to decarbonise flights to and from the island.

Maturing tidal power

Marine energy hasn’t always received attention and has generally remained in the shadows of offshore wind.

Kermode states that it simply hasn’t reached critical mass, but it will come. “There is a massive amount of oceanic space out there that we can put this into once we have cracked the technology”.

Kermode identifies how the tidal energy sector is evolving…

Recognising the importance of maintenance on tidal energy equipment: Initially, there was a tendency to build the system and let it run as engineers didn’t understand the enormity of the technical ask. Now, people recognise that it will take more maintenance initially, until systems can be developed requiring less maintenance.

Succeeding at surface mounted equipment: Projects have gone to the surface rather than underwater. Kermode highlights that initially, it was important to get the equipment underwater and out of sight so shipping could continue unhindered. However, the technical requirements are larger than initially thought, which means it will take longer to get it under water.

The turbine sizes are maxing out at about +-2MW: “We won’t see the same growth scale curve as with offshore wind, although I don’t think we’ll need to. Size might be limited by the depth at the sites or the scale of the available ports to handle turbines.”

The industry has seen that this type of turbine technology works: When Kermode began working at EMEC, the focus was on how to make it work. Now however, it’s about how to make it better and cheaper.

Kermode emphasises the need for patient impatience. “This kit is technologically not that complicated, but we are working in an environment we don’t necessarily understand, in terms of corrosion and fatigue. We need to be patient in terms of how long it takes to get this working, but we need to be impatient in terms of keeping at it.”

Kermode denies marine energy is niche as there are numerous island applications around the world. In terms of some offshore installations, turbines could keep running costs lower.

Also, for island nations and small communities using diesel generators, tidal and wave energy could demonstrate a clear use case.

Neil Kermode. Image credit: Colin Keldie

However, Kermode stresses that deploying marine energy technology in any environment will help other solutions develop and come to the fore. “It’s not about one technology, it’s about using them all collaboratively for the best outcome.”

For now, EMEC works closely with other other test centres around the world to share lessons learned, standards and best practices.

Also, EMEC is on a mission to overcome some post-Brexit finance challenges and regain the confidence of government.

“It’s not just about finding the cheapest technology; it’s about getting government to make smart investments to speed up decarbonisation.”

“We want to rebuild the excitement around marine technology through demonstrable progress, but temper that with the realities that this takes time.”

EMEC plans to support the deployment of tidal turbines and wave machines, and explore additional electrolysis to generate more hydrogen.

“Electrolysis out at sea will become necessary, on land in a high salt environment to test that,” says Kermode.

EMEC also has plans to delve into hydrogen derivatives and synthetic fuels, a trend that Kermode believes will be sizable.

To really spur development of the marine energy sector, Kermode stresses the importance of collaboration. There is no longer time to develop one technology solution at a time. “Marine energy is right in the core of the multi-faceted attack we will need to make on decarbonising our energy system as a whole.”

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