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Orkney rides the next wave in renewables

Aquamarine news
Aquamarine news

The waves thunder into the shoreline at Billia Croo on Orkney mainland’s west coast.

It is a sound to warm the hearts of the global audience that the remote isles are attracting.

This is because Orkney has become the test centre of an array of wave and tidal-energy devices being developed internationally.

After years of preparation, the past 12 months have seen activity ramp-up on the mainland, where the European Marine Energy Centre’s (Emec) dozen wave and tidal test berths are now close to capacity.

But what will Orkney’s economy get out of this green marine revolution? Much, it is hoped.

Orkney Islands Council (OIC) convener Stephen Hagan said: “We do see it as a huge opportunity and are seeing the economic impact.

“We are in a fortunate position. Everyone is talking about marine renewables and we are already benefiting from it.”

Orkney mainland has a population of 20,000, with low unemployment and crime rates and high school standards.

The mainstay of the economy is still agriculture, tourism and food and drink.

But while agriculture was once a large employer, mechanisation has reduced its manpower needs, leaving the island highly reliant on public-sector jobs at 36% of total employment.

New jobs and companies – especially in the private sector – are, therefore, encouraged and marine renewables is seen as a potential source of these.

It is estimated there are currently 500 energy-related jobs in Orkney, including 250 in renewables and 150 in marine – a significant proportion of the population.

Gareth Davies, managing director of Aquatera, an environmental consultant based at Stromness, predicted the total could rise to 1,000 and that income from the energy sector could increase ten-fold.

Local firms have already been gearing up to meet the demands of developers who are spending more than £1million to instal devices in Orkney’s waters.

Dive and marine service firm Leask Marine and crane and construction company Heddle Construction, both based at Kirkwall, are among businesses that have invested in new equipment and staff.

Heddle bought a 220-tonne crane, primarily to serve the marine renewables market, which has been in regular demand.

Businesses in other sectors are also investing; such as hotels upgrading their rooms and even insurance companies offering marine-energy specific brokerage.

OIC is also investing, spending millions of pounds on upgrading and building port and harbour facilities.

Projects include the £8million Hatston pier project at Kirkwall and a £3.5million pier and shoreside development at Lyness, on the island of Hoy, already home to wave-energy companies Pelamis and Seatricity.

There are also future plans for commercial buildings to be created at Lyness.

A further £5.5million could be spent on a new pier development at Stromness, pending European funding.

In all of these projects the council is contributing at least 60% of the cost.

Mr Hagan said spending the cash was seen as an investment in the future.

He added: “The industry is developing and the ERDF (European Regional Development Fund) funding was available.”

Orkney is already benefiting from past investment.

Some of the cash spent was money the islands gained from the oil industry.

OIC has a £140million pot of cash built up from money it gets from every barrel that goes to Flotta oil terminal.

The industry expertise developed at Flotta had helped to support the isles’ economy, said Mr Davies, whose background is in oil land gas.

Early prototype testing of windfarms has also boosted the islands and no one now doubts that marine renewables will have an impact.

The question for some people is when? Marine-energy development has not come as fast as was expected and a one-gigawatt target of installed capacity might not be met by 2020.

Heddle managing director Derek Heddle said activity had picked up in the past year but added: “I personally think things are a bit ahead of themselves.

“No one knows what these devices are going to look like and there are going to be delays. You cannot build up for a sector that is not ready.

“It will come but it will take time, which will be better for the local economy.”

The sector is supporting a growing number of jobs on the islands, including 20 at Emec and the same number at Aquatera.

New firms have also been formed because of it, including marine-management consultant Orcades Marine – led by master mariner Captain David Thomson, previously head of Orkney’s harbours.

Roving Eye, which had served the tourism industry, now also uses its remotely operated vehicles for the marine renewables sector.

Orkney even has its own home-grown tidal device developer, Scotrenewables, based at Stromness and backed by French energy giant Total and diversified company Fred Olsen.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) area manager Ken Grant said: “You are as likely to see a tidal developer’s van as a builder’s, even at this pre-commercial stage.”

There have been challenges and delays as errors are made and lessons learned but that has meant the local supply chain has been able to learn too.

While there is no large-scale engineering capability in the islands, Mr Grant said this could be found not far away at Nigg, in Caithness, and the Arnish yard, in the Hebrides.

A longer-term aim is to develop a knowledge-based economy.

Graeme Harrison, head of energy at HIE, said: “Orkney is not immune to the downturn.

“There is job uncertainty in the public sector and there are pockets struggling.”

Having Heriot-Watt University’s International Centre for Island Technology (Icit) based at Stromness has helped promote a number of new firms set up by former staff and graduates, including Aquatera and Scotrenewables. Icit director Professor Jonathan Side said Orkney needed to grasp the opportunity facing it, or risk losing out.

Having already seen the islands lose an early lead in wind power to Denmark, Professor Side added: “This is a unique moment in time. We either do it or die.”

Orkney is not alone in wanting to make the most of its ocean resources. Other parts of the UK and other countries in Europe and globally, especially America and Canada, are hoping to catch up Scotland’s marine-energy lead.

Mr Davies at Aquatera said it was crucial to focus spending on the right targets and maintain government support, although Orkney still had the world’s largest concentration of marine-energy devices deployed, adding: “There are as many in Scotland as in the rest of the world.”

Emec is likely to need to expand as the sector grows and deployment of the first arrays is also imminent, requiring a scale-up of the skills needed in the sector.

“If it goes the way we hope, it could be bigger than oil and gas was for the local economy,” said Mr Davies.

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