Innovation has driven development of the Highlands and Islands energy sector, from the pioneering of hydro-power, through ongoing oil and gas activity to the rapidly emerging ‘new energy’ sectors including offshore wind, marine and hydrogen energy.
Breakthroughs in major ‘front end’ energy production technologies, particularly in renewables devices themselves, are more visible but supply chain and other more ‘background’ innovations from local businesses are less obvious.
These product and service innovations – some making global-scale impacts on the energy industry – reflect the region’s dynamism and resourcefulness.
A Highland engineering business located right beside the Pentland Firth, the site of some of Europe’s fastest and currents, has developed a revolutionary new tidal turbine to harness energy from…..slow flowing rivers.
Despite the power of the waters on its doorstep, Caithness firm MTDS has designed a device to address the untapped global ‘slow flow’ market.
The turbine uses vertical ‘revolving door’ rotors. With these moving at about the same speed as the current, unlike conventional ‘windmill-style’ rotors, it is designed to maximise efficiency and minimise marine life impacts and maintenance costs.
Now the company is set to build a full-scale prototype for a 12-month demonstration project on Brazil’s Amazon river.
At 50 tonnes and nearly 20-feet wide, it will be smaller and much lighter than other tidal turbines, allowing easier transport and installation and offering huge potential for riverside villages and towns, in vast regions such as South America, China, India and Russia, wanting local or green energy.
This prototyping and trialling process addresses many uncertainties in energy development.
However, a big challenge for pioneer offshore renewables developers, and oil and gas operators, is to ensure their multi-million pound projects are not crippled by a complex range of risk factors.
Now a specialist energy company has developed a groundbreaking ‘nerve centre’ risk management system to assess, anticipate and avert costly set-backs, from delayed consenting procedures to major production breakdowns.
Energy consultancy Xodus has developed the intelligent, web-based management tool to replace cumbersome systems involving emailed sharing of review and action materials. It combines a single, securely shared risk register, enabling managers located anywhere in the world to build clear plans with actions assigned, managed, tracked and auditable.
Staff from Xodus have already used Xrisk successfully in risk management consultancy for major oil and gas and renewables operators and are developing it as a stand-alone tool for direct use by client companies.
“With the offshore renewables industry blazing the trail for the rest of the world here in Scotland, this is good timing for a system that integrates and simplifies the risk management process,” said Liz Foubister, Orkney-based Alternative Energy Director at Xodus, who are headquartered in Aberdeen.
Part of this trail-blazing activity has been construction and operation of the world’s first deepwater offshore demonstration project, about 15 miles off Caithness, which has demanded a range of innovatory inputs.
The Beatrice Wind Farm Demonstrator Project entailed the design, construction, installation and operation of two, 5-megawatt turbines.
Cutting-edge technologies – stemming largely from the region’s transferable knowledge and skills from the oil and gas industry – enabled other global breakthroughs at Beatrice, including use of a “jacket” sub-sea structure for the turbines, onshore assembly of the turbines, towers, hubs and blades into one piece, and offshore installation of this from a floating vessel.
Much of the facility was manufactured and deployed by local companies – including Camcal (now BiFab) in the Outer Hebrides and Isleburn and Weldex in Easter Ross – whose experience in wind-related manufacturing, engineering and deployment has evolved as the sector has grown.
Worldwide advancement of wave and tidal energy devices, with the Highlands and Islands in the vanguard through its Orkney-basedEuropean Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), has created demand for common standards for judging their performance.
In keeping with its innovatory origins, as the world’s first full-scale marine energy prototypes test centre, EMEC www.emec.org.uk has put forward the first set of draft global standards, not only for device performance but also for assessing the energy resources of wave and tidal sites.
Submitted to the global ‘watchdog’ body, the International Electrotechnical Commission, they are part of a wider suite of standards developed by EMEC, involving groups of industry experts, in six-years of pioneering marine power development.
These also include measures for reliability and survivability of devices, as well as for design and manufacture, environmental appraisal, and health and safety practice.
EMEC’s development has been funded through partnership involving the Scottish Government, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Scottish Enterprise, Orkney Islands Council, the UK Government and the Carbon Trust.
Back on land, another energy sector seeing strong growth is biofuel heating from sustainable local wood, not least as public bodies have identified its twin advantages of green energy and cost-effectiveness.
And a west Highland business has opened the way to treble the size of older buildings that can convert. Major schools, in particular, have often been denied the benefits by prohibitive costs and other 'project risks' of replacing small boiler houses.
Systems for users like smaller primary schools across the country have often been housed in converted metal shipping containers but these can only take plant of up to about 150 killowatts.
Now Highland Wood Energy, (HWE) have developed purpose-built 'biomass heat cabins' to house units of up to 500 kilowatts, capable of heating premises such as schools with several hundred pupils.
The heat cabins – built from steel or sustainable Scottish timber – are designed and manufactured by Fort William-based HWE and nearby fabrication company Newco. Already, the packaged solution has enabled rapid conversion decisions at a number of large schools.
A renewable energy source often cited as the greatest for the longer term is hydrogen, which has spawned a remarkable centre of innovation, on the UK’s most northerly island of Unst in Shetland.
The Pure Energy Centre www.pure.shetland.co.uk is Britain’s only research facility with on-site access to a working renewable hydrogen system.
This provides zero-emission, locally generated off-grid power to a small industrial estate on the island. The centre incorporates hydrogen and thermal energy storage facilities and is also the fuelling station for the first road-licensed renewable hydrogen fuel cell powered car in the UK.
Several academic and other bodies are using the centre’s facilities for their own research and, since 2006, the centre has worked with hydrogen developments across the world, often with communities with little or no grid infrastructure and seeking solutions to local energy insecurity.