IT is the pioneering project that offers a tantalising glimpse of a cleaner, greener future free of mass pollution.
Experts have launched the first phase of a ground-breaking £28.5 million energy system which it is hoped will eliminate the need for fossil fuels in Orkney — and eventually the whole of the UK.
The scheme includes plans for a locally-powered electric bus and electric bike “integrated transport system” on the islands, as well as the mass roll-out of electric vehicles.
Meanwhile, up to 500 domestic and 100 large-scale batteries will be used to store renewable energy, allowing it to be pumped into the grid when winds drop or the sun disappears.
Dubbed the “energy system of the future”, those involved hope it will prove such a success it will eventually be rolled out across the UK and beyond – helping to create a future powered entirely by renewables.
Mark Hamilton from Solo Energy, one of the firms involved in the ReFLEX (Responsive Flexibility) scheme, said it was a “world-leading example” of how innovation can drive the transition to green energy.
He said: “In Orkney, we’ve got a very high level of renewable generation from wind and solar, and other forms of generation such as wave and tidal.
“All of these renewable generation sources are obviously low carbon, but they are intermittent – so the wind comes and goes, the sun comes and goes.
“The ReFLEX project involves deploying battery systems and smart electric vehicle charging to balance the intermittency of renewables.
“So what Solo does, we have a software platform which we use to control battery systems across the grid to respond to the intermittency of renewable generation.
“So basically, when there’s lots of renewables generating, we charge battery systems across the grid, store that low-cost renewable energy, and then release it back to the grid when renewable generation decreases.”
Mr Hamilton said 25 per cent of the UK’s current electricity needs are met by renewable energy.
He said it would realistically be 20 to 30 years before the country’s entire energy system could become fully reliant on renewables.
He said: “We can have all the wind and solar farms we want but unless we have the means to store and balance renewables we will never fully wean ourselves off fossil fuels and get to the root of the climate change problem.”
The Orkney scheme uses a “virtual power plant” model which sees rechargeable lithium-ion battery systems controlled remotely using special software.
This allows them to be charged when renewable energy – such as wind – is abundant. They can then release that energy when the supply drops.
Orkney is already a world-leader in wave and tidal technology and boasts a high uptake of electric vehicles.
The latest project aims to deploy up to 600 extra electric vehicles and 100 flexible heating systems, as well as a Doosan industrial-scale hydrogen fuel cell which produces eco-friendly energy and heat.
Once demonstrated in Orkney, experts hope the “virtual energy system” – which aims to link up local electricity, transport, and heat networks into one controllable, overarching system – will be rolled out across the UK and internationally.
To encourage uptake, electric vehicles will be provided through a low-cost leasing arrangement, while batteries will be provided free on the basis customers will benefit from lower energy bills.
Led by the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), the ReFLEX Orkney scheme brings together an expert consortium including Solo Energy, Aquatera, Community Energy Scotland, Heriot-Watt University and Orkney Islands Council – as well as multi-national energy company Doosan Babcock. It is funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.
Scotland Office minister Lord Ian Duncan said £14.3 million of UK Government money was being pumped into the project to help “establish the Scottish Islands as an energy powerhouse”.
UK energy minister Claire Perry said: “What we are seeing here on Orkney is a test bed for the energy system of the future.
“These smart systems are a key part of our modern Industrial Strategy and will provide cheaper, greener and more flexible access to energy for everyone.
“What we learn from these innovations could one day be rolled out across the UK and exported around the world and we’ll be able to say it was ‘Made in Orkney’.”
Professor David Flynn of Heriot-Watt University said it had the potential to “deliver global change in how we achieve our low carbon objectives”.
Speaking on behalf of the ReFLEX Orkney project partners, Neil Kermode, managing director at EMEC, said: “We’re delighted that UK Research and Innovation have funded this project.
“This new model will demonstrate how we can better interact with, own and manage our integrated energy systems locally, both at individual and community level.
“50% of the project is being funded privately indicating the appetite that exists within the partners to make this project work.
“Orkney has already demonstrated high commitment for local sustainable energy solutions and the county is well on its way to decarbonising each aspect of the energy system.
“The target for Orkney is to have a negative carbon footprint and this pioneering project will build upon the existing local energy system, local infrastructure and local expertise, to accelerate this transition to a fully sustainable and flexible energy system.”
The Scottish Government aims to generate 50% of the country’s overall energy consumption from renewable sources by 2030.