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September 7, 2011

A tidal first

While community owned wind power may not exactly be common place across Scotland the body of knowledge and experience surrounding it is growing fast – and this is being accelerated by the work of Community Energy Scotland. Other forms of renewable energy generation – namely hydro and bio mass are growing too. Community owned tidal power has been slower to take off but perhaps that’s about to change

Scotland on Sunday, Frank Urquhart, 4/9/11

IT’S a windswept northern island surrounded by vicious Atlantic tides and currents. Now the power of at least one of the elements that dominate life on Yell is to be harnessed.

The world’s first community-owned tidal power generator is to be installed 200 metres off the coast of Shetland’s northernmost outpost by the end of the year. 

The custom-designed machine is currently being built at Leith-based renewable energy company Nova Innovations and the device – which looks like a small wind turbine with blades about four metres in diameter – is expected to be deployed in the waters of the narrow Bluemull Sound between Yell and neighbouring Unst. 

Alan Nisbet, the secretary of the North Yell Development Council, believes the installation of the groundbreaking tidal power device could be a major money-spinner for the island community and herald an energy revolution for other small island communities around Scotland’s coast. But he admitted: “It is a leap into the unknown. I wouldn’t say it is a gamble but it is certifiably not like dealing with wind turbines.

“The potential could be enormous if this small scheme works for our community. And I am sure other coastal communities, particularly down the west of Scotland, could also benefit. There are lot of small islands and quite a lot of them have strong tides.

“The council went for this idea because we have a good tidal resource off our coast. We are aware that it’s experimental but we are hoping that it will generate income which we can use for community development. It could potentially be a great way of capturing the resource that is on our doorstep. There is certainly a lot of excitement on Yell about the prospect of harnessing tidal power.”

Nisbet explained that the council already had planning permission for a wind farm on the island but could not start work on the development because of the current restrictions on the Shetland grid. Shetland is still the only significantly sized island group in the UK not to be connected to the mainland grid.

Yell is the second-biggest island in the Shetland archipelago and has a population of about 950. The pioneering energy scheme has been made possible through £168,000 in grants from Community Energy Scotland, Shetland Islands Council and HIE Shetland.

Simon Forest, a spokesman for Nova Innovations, explained: “The 30-kilowatt device will be grid-connected, powering a local ice plant and industrial estate and helping to regenerate the fragile economy of North Yell – one of Europe’s most remote communities.

“Final commissioning is set for the end of 2011, making it the world’s first community-owned tidal scheme.

“A grassroots movement combining a progressive community and local authority, with the support and guidance of Community Energy Scotland, ha s enabled this innovative and cutting-edge tidal technology project to become reality. The successful project will herald a new model for tidal development where all the benefits go to the community through their ownership of the tidal power scheme.” 

He added: “Nova Innovation and the North Yell community have not had an easy path to get their project to launch stage, not least having to overcome significant red tape – at the last count over 17 licences, permits and statutory permissions.” 

The tidal scheme has still to be granted a grid connection by Scottish and Southern Energy, which operates the Shetland grid.

But Jennifer McGregor, the communications manager for the Northern Isles New Energy Solutions (NINES) project on Shetland, said the aim of the scheme was to address some of the most pressing energy challenges Shetland currently faces by allowing small-scale renewable generation to play a much more significant role in meeting the islands’ energy needs.

She told Scotland on Sunday: “We are aiming to free up capacity on the system so we can connect more developments. But it (North Yell] is exactly the kind of project that we would anticipate being able to connect fairly early on in the process.” 

She explained that the problem was not how much energy was being consumed on Shetland, but the stability of the supply. 

McGregor added: “Because of the nature of renewable energy it is less controllable than, say, a thermal or coal-fired power station. The way in which the electricity is produced and the way it varies can have a destabilising effect when there is too much of it on an island’s network. The NINES project will allow a much higher level of renewable energy to be taken on to the system in Shetland.”