I travelled to Utsira on a brilliant April day – not a cloud in the sky, a glassy sea. The catamaran lolloped along, reeling off the miles. It took no time to reach this lump of near-barren North Sea rock, which is home to some 230 souls.
We were 20km off the Norwegian mainland – Rogoland County sector – yet it was like another world. Utsira resembled a chocolate-box community … smartly painted homesteads mostly clustered around the harbour with boats dozing; micro-meadows riotous with spring flora; occasional livestock munching; few cars.
There is one school (grades 1-10), one grocery store/post office, one gift shop, one library, one pub, one smart hotel/community hall. Most employment on the island stems from the shipping and offshore industries.
A sleek modern ferry connects Utsira with the mainland two to three times daily. Utsirans are commuters. And, at the “remote” north end of this scrap of civilisation whose name is synonymous with the UK Met Office’s shipping forecast, one met the 21st century … a pair of Enercon turbines perched on 40m steel towers and, snuggled at the foot of one of them, a hydrogen fuel-cell plant and electrolyser.
Utsira is a living experiment. Norway’s smallest municipality has become a model for sustainable renewable energy supplies of the future – and the world’s first hydrogen society.
Between the turbines and the hydrogen plant, 70 households are essentially self-sufficient in energy.
There’s one heck of a lot of wind out there, which means the turbines are very busy generating electricity for the island population, plus power electrolysers to produce hydrogen for compression and storage until required for driving generators during calm periods. It was on such a day that Kjell Ursin-Smith, CEO of Offshore Northern Seas, took Energy’s editor and a posse of other energy journalists out there to see what is, for Europe, a highly significant renewables trial.
The Utsira project is not an isolated one-off. While many Norwegians appear ambivalent about wind energy … after all, Norway is more than 95% dependent on hydropower for electricity supplies … they are passionate about clean energy.
One result is that Norway is establishing a hydrogen highway between Oslo and Aberdeen’s alter ego, Stavanger. This is years ahead of the hydrogen highway scheme for Scotland’s north-east.
The world’s third largest oil exporter (and still very large producer) is investing some 900million kroner (about £90million) in a 10-year project to establish a national hydrogen programme.
It was during the late-1990s that the Utsira project was seeded by now-retired StatoilHydro staffer Christopher Kloed and islander Robin Kirkhus.
Power generation started in 2004, since when Utsira has become something of an icon, both for StatoilHydro and Norway. It has become a major tourist attraction, too.
The Utsira demonstrator was originally planned to run until 2007, but then it was extended into early-2008 and was still very much alive during Energy’s visit. Moreover, one had the opportunity to climb hand over hand to the top of one of the turbines – nail-bitingly worthwhile.
While this is a flagship project, there have been problems, notably making enough hydrogen to tide the community over long periods of calm due to the inability of the electrolyser to make full use of all surplus wind. Also, the fuel cell was unreliable.
Plans are now firming for Norway’s first offshore windfarm project to be constructed in the Utsira locale by Norwegian group Lyse using a floating spar-shaped turbine concept known as Sway.
There are three phases:
Pilot: Build a 5MW prototype floating wind turbine in 2009, instal it off the Rogaland coast near Utsira and start generating in 2010.
Phase 1: A 25MW demonstration farm to be set up with five turbines installed 5km east of Utsira with a possible start date in 2012.
Phase 2: A 280MW offshore windfarm to be set up with 56 wind turbines and located some 17km west of Utsira, with a possible start-up date in 2016.
The fact that Ursin-Smith saw fit to take a gang of energy writers to Utsira as part of a wider pre-ONS briefing session is indicative of how this high-profile offshore petroleum show is addressing the future. It’s not just an oil&gas event. ONS is a forum for serious strategic discussion and, in Energy’s opinion, leads the way. This year, for example, it has a renewables pavilion – something that Offshore Europe has never done despite Energy’s editor badgering the organisers more than a decade ago. Of course, Aberdeen now has All-Energy, so the gap was plugged.
If you haven’t booked to travel to ONS, it’s probably too late. That said, a stack of Brits are booked to attend. Many are traveling under the Munro’s/Press and Journal banner. Aberdeen will hopefully still be there in force to deliver a strong civic message that, despite the current council shambles, it remains the Energy Capital of Europe.