Orkney: This small island chain is leading the way on hydrogen power

Orkney, better known because of its breathtaking coastal scenery plus some of Britain’s oldest heritage sites than for its leading edge approach to energy, has been quietly pioneering hydrogen technology.
Abundant rainfall, strong winds and powerful waves mean the island chain’s entire electricity demand is already met through renewable resources. But in recent years, Orkney’s grid couldn’t handle the amount of power being generated from its ever expanding wind farms, Megan McNeill, Orkney projects manager at Community Energy Scotland, told CNN Business.

Wind turbines needed to be turned off on an everyday basis, as power cables reached capacity, leaving clean energy unused.

Rather than waste the excess electricity, the islands decided to harness it. It was here that in 2017 the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), in a world first, used tidal energy to split water and make hydrogen — a process referred to as electrolysis.

That was just the beginning. The success of that project spurred collaboration between EMEC, Community Energy Scotland among others to do the same with excess wind energy. Surf ‘n’ Turf, a project funded by the Scottish government, combined excess electricity from tidal and wind generators to create hydrogen, another world first.

Hydrogen is considered an important element of the transition to a cleaner future because it emits no carbon. It can be stored and is regarded as a potential replacement to natural gas.

But conventional hydrogen production relies nearly entirely on fossil fuels and is responsible for 830 million tonnes of skin tightening and emissions annually. That is equivalent to the CO2 emissions of the United Kingdom and Indonesia combined, based on the International Energy Agency.

Producing hydrogen power remains expensive, but Orkney’s success in creating hydrogen using clean energy demonstrates that it can be done at scale. The islands happen to be using hydrogen to power vehicles, and it will soon be utilized to heat a local primary school.

Now, Orkney is hoping to make use of hydrogen fuel cells to power a seagoing vessel able to transport both goods and passengers.

“We’re hoping it can be the world first,” said hydrogen manager at EMEC, Jon Clipshim, adding, “there is a race on.”

— Jenny Marc contributed to the report.

Correction: An early in the day version of the story incorrectly stated that hydrogen power was being used to power a primary school.

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