Orkney Islands eye hydrogen economy

Hydrogen generation and use is at the centre of Orkney Islands’ efforts to achieve a sustainable energy system.
Published: Fri 20 Oct 2017

The Orkney Islands off the northeastern tip of Scotland, have long been at the forefront of sustainable energy development since the early 1950s with the connection of the first commercial wind turbine to the grid at Costa Head.

The latest commitment to a low carbon, renewables based future is embodied in a new sustainable energy strategy for the years 2017-2025 – and a critical element of this is the development of hydrogen as a key resource in the Islands’ energy system.

Why hydrogen?

The basis of the hydrogen strategy is the opportunity to exploit Orkney’s renewable energy potential.

With its excellent wind, solar and marine resources, renewable production has been running at over 100% of the local needs – in 2016, production was at 120.5%. This has led to both moratoriums on new grid connections as well as curtailments of potential production, as much as 40% to 60% for some generators, and the consequent losses of both new renewable investment revenues and revenues from sales and feed-in tariffs.

“Developing hydrogen-based projects provides a way to transform these challenges into opportunities to make good use of this ‘lost’ electricity,” states the Hydrogen Economic Strategy.

The strategy document further mentions that this is the first case, as far as the proposers are aware, of hydrogen production being based on otherwise wasted renewable energy, thus supporting the development of an island hydrogen energy economy.

According to the new energy strategy, the contribution of hydrogen derived energy as a percentage of grid load, 1.5MW out of 35MW (4.3%), is expected to be the largest in Europe.

Hydrogen projects

The hydrogen strategy states that a number of pipeline projects have already been identified, including the use of hydrogen in sea and road transport as local solutions which are potentially replicable in other areas facing similar challenges.

“Moreover, we have a knowledgeable community, supportive public sector and innovative industries with successful track records, as well as existing networks that are willing and able to work with academia and other partners in order to take proof of concept projects to commercial reality.”

Several projects are already well under way.

The European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), which is based in Orkney, has acquired a 0.5MW electrolyser with a hydrogen generation capacity of up to 220kg/day with the intention of piloting the production of hydrogen using tidal energy. This world first was achieved in August.

Neil Kermode, Managing Director of EMEC, says in a statement that the initial driver for the initiative was to provide a storage solution to circumvent local grid constraints, but the purchase of the electrolyser has “sparked off other pioneering projects around Orkney looking to use hydrogen in various means.”

One of the projects that will use the EMEC hydrogen is Surf ‘n’ Turf, which will supplement it with additional hydrogen generated from power from an otherwise curtailed local 900kW community wind turbine. The hydrogen will be transported to the Islands’ capital, Kirkwall, where a newly installed 75kW fuel cell will convert it back to electricity to power the harbour buildings and marina and as auxiliary power for the island ferries when docked there.

The project, under the leadership of Community Energy Scotland, is also developing a training programme with a view to green hydrogen eventually being used as a fuel source on the ferries themselves. In addition, it will be used to power a fleet of vans, while Kirkwall could become a hub for marine hydrogen transport.

Another initiative, which has reached early stage development, is ‘Wind to Agri Energy’ led by Shapinsay Development Trust. The project is exploring how the use of curtailed electricity from the Trust’s community wind turbine could be utilised to produce synthetic diesel for local farm transport and urea for use as a fertiliser.

Island energy systems

Islands face specific challenges in meeting their energy needs, leading the European Commission to launch a Clean Energy for European Islands initiative.

While the UK wasn’t a signatory to the declaration, nevertheless island initiatives can have wider impact and Orkney is leading two such projects.

Related to Surf ‘n’ Turf and using much of the same infrastructure, BIG HIT (Building Innovative Green Hydrogen systems in Isolated Territories) is aimed to create a replicable hydrogen territory in Orkney based on an integrated model of hydrogen production, storage, transportation and utilisation for heat, power and mobility.

The five-year project, which started in May 2016, is supported from the EU’s Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking.

Orkney also is taking a lead, with Community Energy Scotland, in the newly launched Horizon 2020 supported SMILE (Smart IsLand Energy systems) smart grid initiative.

The project will demonstrate combinations of smart grid technologies including battery technology, power to heat, power to fuel, pumped hydro, electric vehicles and electricity stored on board of boats, on Orkney and two other islands, Madeira and Samsø in Denmark. These islands are considered representative of the majority of EU markets and the aim is to achieve an optimal and replicable solution on each.

The Orkney pilot will integrate a new demand side management system with the existing smart generation grid to provide intelligent control and aggregation of electric heating systems in homes, businesses and council buildings, as well as EV charging points and hydrogen electrolysers.

A comment Councillor James Stockan, Leader of Orkney Islands Council, made in reference to Surf ‘n’ Turf, describing the project as exemplifying the Islands’ approach to sustainable energy development, seems apposite.

“It reflects the ambition of our community in taking forward projects with the potential to greatly benefit our islands – and support wider national and international efforts to bring about carbon reduction.”