This small island chain is leading the way on hydrogen power

The Orkney islands in far northern Scotland use excess wind power to produce the zero carbon fuel.

Posted: Mar 27, 2020 1:11 PM
Updated: Mar 27, 2020 1:11 PM

Too much clean energy. It's an unusual problem to have, and one that's spurred a group of islands off the northern coast of Scotland to become an unlikely pioneer in hydrogen power.

Orkney, better known for its breathtaking coastal scenery and some of Britain's oldest heritage sites than for its cutting edge approach to energy, has been quietly pioneering hydrogen technology.

Abundant rainfall, strong winds and powerful waves mean the island chain's entire electricity demand is already met through renewable resources. But in recent years, Orkney's grid couldn't handle the amount of power being generated from its ever expanding wind farms, Megan McNeill, Orkney projects manager at Community Energy Scotland, told CNN Business.

Wind turbines needed to be switched off on a daily basis, as power cables reached capacity, leaving clean energy unused.

Rather than waste the excess electricity, the islands decided to harness it. It was here that in 2017 the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), in a world first, used tidal energy to split water and make hydrogen — a process known as electrolysis.

That was just the beginning. The success of that project spurred collaboration between EMEC, Community Energy Scotland and others to do the same with excess wind energy. Surf 'n' Turf, a project funded by the Scottish government, combined excess electricity from tidal and wind turbines to create hydrogen, another world first.

Hydrogen is viewed as an important part of the transition to a cleaner future because it emits no carbon. It can also be stored and is seen as a potential replacement to natural gas.

But traditional hydrogen production relies almost entirely on fossil fuels and is responsible for 830 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year. That is equivalent to the CO2 emissions of the United Kingdom and Indonesia combined, according to the International Energy Agency.

Producing hydrogen power remains expensive, but Orkney's success in creating hydrogen using clean energy demonstrates that it can be done at scale. The islands are already using hydrogen to power vehicles, and it will soon be used to heat a local primary school.

Now, Orkney is hoping to use hydrogen fuel cells to power a seagoing vessel able to transport both goods and passengers.

"We're hoping it can be the world first," said hydrogen manager at EMEC, Jon Clipshim, adding, "there is a race on."

— Jenny Marc contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that hydrogen power was being used to power a primary school.

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