Orkney is becoming a focus of renewable energy projects. This week saw the announcement of leases to energy companies of ten sites on the seabed off Orkney and the North of Scotland to generate electricity using wave and tidal energy. Eight of these sites are around Orkney waters. (More detailed info at these links: BBC, Crown Estate and the Scottish Government). In addition there are a number of private companies and local island Development Trusts already with wind turbines. All sounds positive stuff you might think, helping reduce reliance on fossil fuels and reduce the need for nuclear power. Sadly, it's not as simple as that - particularly in Orkney.
Leaving aside the technical aspects of how much energy is generated, and investment by the UK and Scottish Government, there are a number of challenges ahead for Orkney. Take energy generated by wind - a number of the isles have Community Development Trusts and have (or are in the process of acquiring) wind turbines. The income from these (usually single turbines) will then be available to the island community. But of course private developers are keen to erect wind turbines too and usually want more than one in any location (I'm not talking about large wind farms, but clusters - currently the largest is five, but there is pressure from private developers to increase the number of and at sites in Orkney). Sometimes an island community will band together with a private developer to get some income from the local turbine, others are wholly owned community turbines. Both will have the same impact on the landscape. And that is one of the problems in Orkney. The land is fairly low lying so wind turbines are visible from miles away. Orkney is famous for it's landscape, it's heritage, archaeology and has areas that are declared National Scenic Areas, as well as the World Heritage Site of the Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae, and Maes Howe. Wind turbines have to have planning permission from the local authority and there is often strong opposition from within the community, as well as national landscape agencies relating to the visual impact on the landscape of these turbines. In theory these are not supposed to dominate the landscape around the World Heritage Site. Other considerations are proximity to housing, and bird nesting sites (particularly rare birds). Domestic wind turbines are becoming popular in Orkney but these are much smaller - from around 12 to 18 metres in height. Although these too are subject to the same planning guidelines, but are less intrusive on the landscape (well unless you live next door to one maybe!). With the domestic turbines any electricity that remains after running the house is fed back into the national grid and the homeowner gets paid for this.
Another challenge is that currently Orkney doesn't have a big enough link to the National Grid so although the electricity can be transmitted via the National Grid, a number of large turbines have a limit placed upon them as to how much they can generate - some as little as 35% of their full capacity. The local authority and private developers are, of course, lobbying for an upgrade to the grid link.
Which brings the next challenge - the leases for the wave and tidal energy announced this week. It may take a couple of years before any actual sites come into use, and by then there may be a resolution to the grid link. And you may think that these developments will be less intrusive on the landscape. However although most of the technology will be below the water, there will also be access points to the technology above the water, and infrastructure along the shoreline to bring the energy ashore (including buildings, sheds etc). Most of the sites announced in Orkney are along a national scenic path and some of the most beautiful coastline in Orkney. All of the licences have been awarded to large companies and it is questionable just how much money will go into the local economy. It is unlikely that many jobs will be generated locally as most are fairly specialised, although it may bring new folk to live in the isles.
So there are conflicting viewpoints on the impact of "renewables"including : the people involved in tourism, which is a large part of the income for folk on the isles, and they fear that fewer tourists will come to Orkney as the landscape will no longer look "unspoiled"; those who value the landscape as it is; fishermen who fear the impact on inshore waters of the new wave/tidal technology; the general community who see a modern "industrialisation" of the landscape; those who hope new jobs will be created within the community, and a new prosperity to Orkney; communities who need the income from a community turbine to enable their island to be sustainable (most are very fragile due to an ageing population, remoteness etc) and of course there are the developers who want to make money!
There are no easy answers. One of my concerns relates to the lack of regulation relating to the new marine licences. There is a Marine Bill currently going through a consultation period in the Scottish Government (for those outside the UK, the Scottish Government has devolved powers for domestic issues of which this is one). However that won't come into being for a couple of years and it doesn't look as though it covers real environmental issues eg impact on the underwater landscape, fish, plankton etc. In addition sometimes it feels that permission is rather arbitrarily granted to wind turbines within Orkney and there are developers hungry for additional development, some of it large scale (for Orkney). So there is the potential for "industrialisation" of the natural landscape, and without much actual benefit to the local economy of the islands which might at least in some small way make up for it.
On the other hand, Orkney is a living community, not a museum. Some argue that Scapa Flow has seen many changes over the years, from both the World Wars where fleets of ships were anchored in the Flow and many servicemen were stationed around Orkney with concrete bunkers and gun turrets to guard the Flow - now some of these relics are themselves "protected". The island of Flotta has an oil terminal as a result of the finds of North Sea Oil in the 20th Century, and oil tankers conduct ship-to-ship transfer just off Orkney.
The challenge ahead is going to be finding a balance between all the issues of the many groups involved and enable Orkney to have it's own sustainable future in terms of economy, but also maintaining the beautiful landscape around (in myview!). But I am rather cynical and fear the "Green Revolution" may take over Orkney if care is not taken, and to the detriment of the islands, if care isn't taken.
And on that gloomy negative note - it's the Spring Equinox and I'm going to go and enjoy the fresh air and landscape and welcome the new season!
Below - a picture of the rig that was used to place the "Oyster", part of a renewable energy project off the West Mainland in Orkney - the yellow piece to the right is part of what was in the water. The rig was only used for a couple of months.
(Photos taken by Cathy Ritch)