When a renewable energy revolution meets the landscapes of Orkney, the result is deeply beautiful
The Scottish investigative journalism site The Ferret has just published a selection of the work of Italian photographer Luigi Avantaggiato, who has profiled the Orkney Islands’ sustainable energy revolution in his new collection, Ecowarrios. It’s a beautiful collection of photographs, but is also a solid report on the exciting array of renewable and zero-carbon energy systems the islanders are building.
On Orkney Islands an intellectual revolution is underway, made of wind, sun and sea waves.
15 kilometres beyond the border of Scotland, this archipelago of twenty islands has become the site of a turning point on energy that began forty years ago with some experimental projects on the production of renewable energies.
Orkney was once utterly dependent on power that was produced by burning coal and gas on the Scottish mainland and then transmitted through an undersea cable. Today, on the other hand, the population of Orkney has cancelled and overturned its relationship of energy dependence: it is autonomous from the motherland Scotland and produces more electricity than necessary, storing it and selling it to the grid. In 2018 Orkney produces 130.5% of its electricity needs.
Storms hit the islands throughout the year. The land is flat and without trees, the grass grows horizontally swept by the wind and it nestles on the ground in tangles of leaves and stems.
The rains knock down shacks, tear the tiles from the roofs and can eat meters of coastline in one night. Residents use to say that in Orkney “you don’t need an umbrella, you need a riot shield”.
The decisive agent of this reversal was the way in which the islanders have rethought their environment and its characteristics.
The decades of experimentation on the production of energy from wind, solar and marine sources have guaranteed a constant energy flow that does not originate from violent, forced and invasive technological acts, but from a kind request of the resources of Nature. The experiments are carried out on different zones of the archipelago, both on land and at sea, through the delimitation of specific areas of intervention that transform the landscape into an active energy production agent.
The flat landscape of Orkney is dotted with high white and grey prods that feed the life of the community itself. After the first experiments of the 1980s, many inhabitants of the Mainland began to invest in small and medium-sized wind turbines to be installed on their own farm or in their own garden, to make themselves autonomous.
The wind farms present are owned by the community and generate energy for local villages; electric charging stations are larger than petrol pumps; devices that can transform wave energy and tides into electricity are tested in the waters and on the seabed of the islands.
However, the real story that emerges is another. The population of a small archipelago lost in the North Sea has imagined a different energy future and has begun to give it form and concreteness.
Here’s a selection from both The Ferret and the photographers sites:
“Owner Mick Frazier installed a Tesla charger station in the car park of his guesthouse which dates back to the early 1860s.
“There are more electric car charge stations in Orkney than there are petrol stations, with a grid of 28 public and private charging points" (Ferret).
Alister Donaldson, 46, is a farmer in Hobbister. “My house and my two farms are powered by two wind turbines. I have been independent of the grid for more than ten years”.
With one in 12 Orcadian households generating voltage from renewable sources, Orkney has the highest proportion of households making their own electricity of anywhere in the UK (Ferret)
Burgar Hill Wind Farm, Mainland, Orkney Island. Richard Gauld has had major roles in a range of important renewable energy projects over the last three decades. “Orkney is a first-rate location for windfarms, with our projects producing high volumes of sustainable electricity, and the developments are perhaps the best examples of locally-owned renewable energy projects in Scotland. The success of wind energy in Orkney has been down the vision of the original development teams, along with the support of the community, and I fully expect to see this success continue for the next decade and beyond” (Avantaggiato)
Micheal Roberts, 69, a farmer in Eastside (Wheems Farm Holidays)
“We’ve started investing in green energy in times when it did not have a high profile. Ours was made possible by the natural characteristics of the island, a landscape that is embraced by the wind and the waves,” he said.
“Now it seems the discourse on renewable energy sources is closer to the marketing logic of large stock markets than to the environmental needs of our dying planet. We fear that our islands, our landscape will be damaged by massive installations purely for business needs” (Ferret)