Climate Technologies: Energy Revolution in the Shetlands



Reportage

Status: 10/30/2021 11:41 a.m.

What the host country of the climate conference is planning to reduce CO2 is particularly clear on the British Shetland Islands: away from oil and gas, towards wind power and hydrogen. But for some, the plans go too far.

By Christoph Prössl, ARD-Studio London, currently Lerwick

Today is a particularly windy day in the Shetland Islands. It’s always blowing here. But now even the flagpoles in front of the town hall in the town of Lerwick are bending in the wind. The clouds are moving at high speed over the dark building from the 19th century. Councilor Steven Coutts sits inside. “The Shetland Islands have huge potential,” he says. Around the Shetlands there are the windiest places in all of Europe – ideal for wind farms in the countryside and off the coast.

Christoph Prössl
ARD-Studio London

“It’s about converting the oil and gas industry to renewable energies,” says Coutts. “Our oil terminal could be a good place for the production of hydrogen. And in the pipelines that already exist, hydrogen can also be transported or mixed in.”

The revolution is already visible. If you drive north on the main road from Lerwick, you will see excavators everywhere in the hills. There is still no wind turbine for Europe’s largest onshore wind farm. But many are already working in the hills, paths have been laid, vehicles deliver concrete, the huge foundations are being poured. 103 wind turbines are to be installed, they are around 150 meters high and produce electricity that could supply around 500,000 households. The British company SSE Renewables will plan, build and operate the “Viking” wind farm.

More than a hundred wind turbines are to be built for the “Viking” onshore park.

Image: Christoph Prössl

Technology change from the living room

Douglas Irvine lives on the largest island in the Shetlands, north of Lerwick. He works for the administration and is responsible for the “Orion” energy project, which is supposed to bring about the green revolution. A chart presentation explains what it’s all about: To make the Shetlands CO2-neutral, to convert oil and gas production to green energy and to enable the export of green hydrogen. A technological change – controlled from the living room.

The maps show where new offshore wind farms are to be built around the Shetlands, where the electricity from wind power is to produce hydrogen. The port and the oil terminal are shown where the hydrogen is to be shipped. Around 350,000 tons of green hydrogen – obtained from wind power – could be produced here every year. Involved in the project are energy giants such as Shell, BP and Total, technology groups such as Babcock, ABB, Hitachi and the University of Glasgow – and a technology center from Aberdeen, funded by the Scottish government.

Several studies are currently being carried out with these partners and the British government to find out how the green hydrogen can be produced, whether it is exported by ship and which markets would be open for it, e.g. Europe or Norway. The potential for wind power is huge, says Gunther Newcombe, the project’s coordinator, who has worked in the oil industry and for the UK Coal and Mining Authority.

Critics consider the project too big

The Shetlands are also about concrete applications. The maritime economy is important here. The second largest fishing fleet in Great Britain is here, ferries operate between the islands and service ships operate around the oil platforms. “This entire maritime sector needs to start thinking about how to switch to green energy,” says Newcombe.

Not everyone on the island thinks the projects are right. There is resistance. The 23,000 residents are divided as to how they should assess the progress. “Many here understand that we have to think ahead. But others feel that this whole project is way too big for our small community,” says Douglas Irvine.

From his living room you can look out over the meadow into the village through the large window. His house is on a hill. Here the island is narrow. Left the North Sea, right the Atlantic. There’s always something going on here, says Douglas, referring more to the weather. He points with his finger in the direction of the main street. There is also the indoor swimming pool – one of four swimming pools on the island.

The island benefits from rental income

The towns on the island are doing well. When a terminal for the oil industry was built in the late 1970s, the administration negotiated well. The residents have benefited from the transshipment. There is even a meeting house in small settlements, the four swimming pools and the streets are much better than in distant London. It should stay that way. The islanders have negotiated their future well.

The Sullom Voe oil and gas terminal was built in the late 1970s. Oil extracted from the North Sea is stored here before tankers transport it on.

Image: Christoph Prössl

The operator of the wind turbines pays the landowners a lease. And because the municipality also owns land, money also flows into their budget. In addition, when the wind turbines go into operation, the operator will pay the municipality an amount for every kilowatt-hour produced, which means that around two million pounds will flow into the coffers. Jobs are also being created: According to the company SSE, around 140 people are involved in setting up the wind turbines, and later 35 permanent positions will remain.

Laurie Goodlad is not very convinced of the arguments put forward by the local government. She was born in the Shetlands, then studied in Dundee, Scotland, and came back to the island she loves. Goodlad writes about life here and guides tourists around the island. “Here, the bulldozer was used to push through the wind farm against public opinion,” she says. The wind turbines can be seen from afar, probably from all points on the island. And Laurie wonders why the energy transition is being pushed so massively in the Shetlands of all places and why the electricity for the United Kingdom should come from here. In addition, she fears that the damage caused by the huge foundations will be great and that moorland will be destroyed.

Electricity from the power of the tides

The tidal power station on the Shetlands is completely invisible and therefore less controversial. Between the two northernmost islands, Yell and Unst, you can only see with the naked eye how the sea pushes the water through the narrowness. Here the North Sea flows into the Atlantic. The first tidal power plant in the world with four turbines so far is at this point, and two more are to be sunk in the floods. The system is installed at a depth of 30 meters. The turbines are reminiscent of wind turbines, with two rotors. The Edinburgh company Nova Innovation installed the turbines here.

“We have shown that we can reliably generate electricity with the tides,” says project manager Tom Wills. “The point now is to reduce costs so that we can compete with other technologies. The potential for this technology to be rolled out worldwide is great.”

An energy turnaround is taking place in the Shetlands. A small island on which progress, conflicts and the economic effects can be observed like in a test laboratory. Local residents of the island will make a relatively large contribution to the change Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised for the UK.


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