A remote town hopes to become a clean-energy hub
EVEN on a sunny day the rugged coastline of Caithness—with its small towns huddled round little harbours, looking 15 miles across the Pentland Firth to the dark cliffs of Orkney—feels as though it is on the edge of the world. The remoteness of this most northerly part of the British mainland was why, in 1955, the government sited an experimental nuclear reactor at Dounreay, a few miles from Thurso. Yet even though the reactor is being decommissioned and its 1,900 associated jobs are dwindling, locals are upbeat—unlike those in most of recession-hit Britain.
“There’s a chance for us to become the centre of a global industry,” says Calum Davidson, a director of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, an economic-development agency. Three big British utilities (ScottishPower, Scottish and Southern Energy, and E.ON UK), along with some smaller firms, have bought licences from the Crown Estate, a government agency, letting them develop 1.6 gigawatts of electricity-generating capacity by 2020 from the waves and tides in the Pentland Firth and off Orkney—projects that are expected to cost about £6 billion ($9.8 billion).
They have been attracted by the geography that channels Atlantic currents into the narrow strait off Caithness, producing strong tidal flows and big waves. This potential persuaded the Scottish and British governments, and the European Union, to spend £23m to establish a testing centre for marine-energy technology on Orkney, connected to the national grid. Some prototypes have already sufficiently impressed utilities and other big international firms for them to have backed ten companies—from Germany, America, Norway, Ireland, Singapore, England and Scotland—to build commercial-scale marine generators, six tidal and four wave, and put them into Orkney’s testing waters.
It will be a while before the winners start to emerge. But in Caithness, local businesses are gearing up for a bonanza. The countryside around Thurso, mainly occupied by sheep, also features some outlandishly large metal sheds. They house manufacturing companies that have made a tidy living, and built up some impressive skills, doing problem-solving engineering at Dounreay and elsewhere.
Will Campbell, director of JGC Engineering, who traces the family-owned firm back six generations to a blacksmith’s forge, is building a computerised crane for a German company that needs it to remove nuclear-fuel rods from a defunct Lithuanian reactor. “In the last year, renewables work has started to come through,” he says, naming several wave and tidal turbine-makers he has won contracts from.
Allen Perrin of Numax, in another big engineering shed nearby, bubbles with pride about a piece of machinery costing more than £200,000 he has just built and installed on a prototype seabed-turbine for Voith Hydro, a joint venture between Voith and Siemens, two German industrial giants. “We completed it in five weeks and we had to wait for the Germans to arrive,” he chortles, adding that they also fixed an ill-fitting German component in 24 hours.
Other local firms providing transport, heavy lifting, port services and accommodation for visiting engineers also benefit from this kind of work. Duncan MacKay, a local marine-energy consultant, says that if all the energy companies’ plans come to fruition, something like 500 seabed and surface turbines will be installed within 18 miles of Thurso over the next decade. Because turbines are heavy and expensive to move, closeness to the final site is a big advantage for Caithness. “The potential is absolutely huge,” he says.
Much depends on subsidies, however. The Nationalist devolved Scottish government thinks that if Scottish companies can establish a lead in marine energy, much as Denmark did in wind power, it could be a big job and wealth creator for the country. Alex Salmond, the first minister, boasts that the Pentland Firth will be the “Saudi Arabia” of marine energy.
To make it happen, he has ploughed £13m into capital subsidies for firms testing machines in Orkney and put up a £10m prize for the first device to produce more than 100 gigawatt-hours over two years. He is also offering operating subsidies through the renewable-obligations mechanism, which will pay tidal generators three times as much as the subsidy paid to onshore wind farms, and wave generators five times as much. But with resistance to wind subsidies growing, backers of marine energy now have their work cut out to prove that such largesse is justified.