The Orkney Islands, just above mainland Scotland, may seem like the end of the earth, but hydrogen power projects launched there could help usher in a new era for marine transportation. A consortium of government, business, and community organizations is developing programs to test hydrogen as fuel for a ferry that runs between the Orkney mainland and the tiny island of Shapinsay. This could be the beginning of a massive global shift from diesel power to renewable energy for short- and medium-haul ships.
The UN Climate Champions have designated “transport” as a theme for the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. Much of the attention is on efforts of national leaders to address climate change, but in fact, much of the innovating that could eventually lead to massive shifts in energy use is happening in small, out-of-the-way places.
Orkney is an archipelago of 70 islands with a population of just 22,000, but it has an abundance of wind, waves, and tides—all of which are being tapped to produce energy. Alternative-energy sources on the islands produce more than 120% of the electricity consumed there. A number of municipalities there have created community-owned businesses that provide energy locally and to the UK national grid.
One such place is Shapinsay. With a population of just 315 people, it’s a micro community, but one that looms large as a model for how local authorities can produce their own energy on behalf of citizens. If many other communities followed suit around the world, it could have macro impact. “It’s a dream that communities can generate their own energy to run their own transport. You don’t have to be dependent on fossil fuels and the multinational energy suppliers,” says David Hibbert, a technical superintendent for the Orkney Harbour Authority, which runs nine ferries between the islands.
The all-volunteer Shapinsay Development Trust decided in 2006 to erect a wind turbine on the island. The plan was to make the island more self-sufficient energy-wise and to sell excess energy to the grid—using the profits to pay for local services. “They wanted to use the money to improve the quality of life for people on the island, to make it more attractive to live here, and to help repopulate the island,” says Adrian Bird, the manager for Shapinsay Renewables, which runs the turbine and sells the energy it produces.
The plan worked, but perhaps too well. The electricity that Shapinsay and other Orkney communities supplied to the grid soon overwhelmed the capacity of the two distribution cables connecting the islands with the Scottish mainland. Frustrated, those involved began exploring other ways of using their resources. Quickly, with the help of technology and maritime experts, they spotted hydrogen power for ships as a potentially lucrative market. Their electricity could be harnessed using electrolizers to produce hydrogen, which would power ships when they’re tied up on shore, and, potentially, move them across the water.
The ferry projects date back to 2014, when Orkney Harbours Authority and the Orkney Council teamed up to commission a study to discover how the ferries could rely less on fossil fuels. The report suggested they switch to hydrogen power. As a first step, in 2019 the Authority began powering the ferries with hydrogen when they were tied up. Then they began exploring approaches for powering the ferries with hydrogen at sea, using the Shapinsay ferry as the pilot site.
That project has stalled, due primarily to the fact that government safety regulations have not yet been revised to accommodate hydrogen as a fuel—mainly over safety concerns. This is frustrating to the people involved. “We talk about an energy revolution but by definition the rules will have to change, and that’s a slow process,” says Neil Kermode, managing director of the European Marine Energy Centre, based in Orkney, which is a leader in testing marine energy systems.
Supporters of the ferry projects are hopeful that eventually, if they persevere, the Shapinsay ferry will be the first or one of the first ferries in the world to run on hydrogen. Chris Dunn, the principal naval architect for Malin Group, a Glasgow-based marine engineering firm, was involved in earlier stages of the project. He hopes to eventually help bring it to fruition. Hydrogen takes up a lot of space, so it’s unlikely to be viable for long-haul shipping, but he sees hydrogen as a potentially important alternative to diesel for powering short- and medium-haul boats and ships. “It’s an important step along the path of leaving fossil fuels, and a step we have to take,” he says.
In addition to the regulatory hurdles, another issue facing alternative energy champions is the high cost of producing hydrogen as a power source in places where electricity is less abundant than Shapinsay. To help deal with that, the United States Department of Energy last June launched Hydrogen Shot, which seeks to reduce the cost of hydrogen energy production by 80 percent to $1 per kilogram within the next decade.
The latest challenge community energy producers on Orkney face is that the winds have been less intense over the past couple of years. So now they produce less energy. “It’s shocking. Something’s going on here,” says Shapinsay’s Adrian Bird. Officials are hoping this is a short-term blip rather than a long-term shift caused by climate change.
Steve Hamm is a writer and documentary filmmaker based in New Haven, CT, USA. His book about Pivot Projects, The Pivot: Addressing Global Problems Through Local Action, has been published in the US and UK by Columbia University Press. This is one in a series of dispatches from the COP26 conference.
Read more from Steve Hamm’s COP26 Dispatches
October 29th: COP26: Let’s Pivot to Save the Planet