Orkney: A smart energy system even the taxi drivers are talking about

Published: 27 February 2020


Anna Stegman, Technical Liaison Manager for the Energy Revolution Integration Service, writes from the archipelago of Orkney off the northeastern coast of Scotland where efforts to build one of the UK’s first smart energy systems has become talk of the town.



As the country grapples with the challenge of squeezing more renewables into the energy mix, it’s somewhat surreal to think there are some places generating so much clean power they’re having to curtail it to avoid overloading the grid.

Yet that is the position the Scottish isles of Orkney find themselves in today. Once dependent on imported coal and gas from the Scottish mainland, the archipelago’s landscape is now adorned with wind turbines, while many of the houses have solar panels on their roofs. Innovative technologies like tidal turbines, and wave energy devices can be seen from shore, and there’s even a hydrogen fuelling station used for some of the council’s fleet of vehicles.

Interest in these projects is high around the islands, but not just from engineers and energy specialists. My taxi driver was very keen to point out that Orkney is at the cutting edge of sustainable energy. This is no doubt due to the engagement that the Reflex team have already been doing within the community.

As Orkney is already experiencing the impact of significant intermittent generation, the Reflex project is presenting invaluable opportunities to demonstrate the benefits of storage and demand-side management that a smart, flexible and fair energy system could deliver.

BIG HIT, part of the Reflex project, aims to demonstrate that the Orkney Islands can become a replicable ‘hydrogen territory’, using curtailed renewable electricity generated locally to produce hydrogen for use as clean energy for heat and transport.

Orkney does face some issues when it comes to energy. Prices are typically very high partially due to the amount of fuel needed for heating and transport. Plus there is no gas network and therefore homes and businesses rely on either electricity or oil to provide heat. This, in conjunction with Orkney’s older housing stock and the local climate mean that the area has one of the highest fuel poverty ratings in the UK (63%).

Despite the island’s significant renewable energy resources and generation capacity, a constrained network is causing high levels of ‘curtailment’ – where wind turbines are switched off to protect the network from overloading. This limits the economic efficiency of existing turbines, and the ability to install more capacity that will be required as the demand increases to support electric vehicles, and the amount of electrified heating systems.

This opportunity to harness the excess renewable energy generated that is currently wasted, along with a will to increase the amount of low carbon energy and reduce fuel poverty, forms the main driver for the Reflex demonstration project.

Domestic and large-scale batteries with smart controls are being installed to optimise the charging and discharging cycles, along with flexible heating systems for hot water storage and smart chargers. The local leisure centre plans to use a hydrogen-fuelled combined heat and power plant (CHP) and up to 600 new electric vehicles are being introduced to the island.

Wind turbine in the Orkney Isles

For us in the Energy Revolution Integration Service (ERIS), one of our objectives is to understand where the common challenges and barriers are in relation to developing smart energy systems, drawing on the Catapult’s expertise to help overcome them.

For example, to be able to improve a local area, it is vital to develop a thorough understanding of the current energy system. This not only includes the generation technology and the network assets, but also the demands which are dependent on many factors.

To support the Orkney project, as well as the other schemes within the government’s Prospering from the Energy Revolution programme, we have developed our Local Energy Asset Representation (LEAR) model which recognises that all areas are different and the “right” transition solution will vary depending on the buildings, geography, rurality, existing assets and, most importantly, residents.

We’ve seen first-hand how passionate the Reflex team is about the project, and it’s clear that this three-year demonstrator project is just the start for them. It will deliver some fascinating and invaluable learnings which we in ERIS can’t wait to share with other energy system innovators around the UK and beyond.