January 14, 2015
A clever fix to a conundrum
It is one thing to have Europe’s best supply of renewable energy, but it’s altogether something else to be able to fully exploit this natural asset. The biggest single barrier (there are several slightly smaller ones) seems to be the lack of grid infrastructure to enable the electricity generated to be exported to those parts of the country that need it. So, we have islands that are rich in energy but unable to export it. It’s a conundrum to which someone at Community Energy Scotland has applied a piece of lateral thinking.
CONSUMERS on two Scottish islands will be asked to use more power to keep wind turbines turning.
Householders on Orkney are to trial a revolutionary scheme to help overcome grid capacity problems plaguing renewable generation across northern Scotland.
Currently the islands’ generators, which are potentially the powerhouse of European green energy, often have to switch off because cables linking the islands to the mainland cannot carry all the clean electricity they produce.
That means that wind turbine owners, including community energy firms, lose income while rigid tariff rules mean there is no way to incentivise local consumers to use up more power when the wind blows most.
Now charity Community Energy Scotland and its partners have come up with what Orkney Island Council admits is a “sneaky” scheme to get around it.
They are to hook up homes and other consumers on the islands of Hoy and Rousay to a sophisticated IT scheme that “tells” storage heating systems when turbines are generating too much power for the grid and will have to shut if there is no outlet for their electricity.
Consumers will pay for the extra power to their normal provider – but local generators will then compensate them separately, allowing producer and user to share in the benefit of using electricity that would otherwise not be generated.
Shona Croy, head of Strategic development and regeneration on the islands, said: “We are losing a lot of income by these curtailments because of a lack of grid capacity and there is no compensation.
“The generators get no money back; they just get cut off.
“What is being proposed now is a system whereby when a generator is due to be turned off, we will turn you back back on and create a little bit more demand for energy.
“Under the existing tariff system there is no price incentives for consumers to do this. So why bother? So we are creating a system under which the generator will compensate you for the power that would otherwise be constrained.
“It’s quite sneaky and we would rather have a proper demand tariff. But this is a really novel idea.”
Orkney consumers currently do not automatically benefit from cheaper power thanks to local generation. So few have converted from the expensive traditional fuel oil heating systems.
The islands, despite being named as having Scotland’s highest quality of life before Christmas, have high levels of fuel poverty.
Local policy-makers believe they could be in a position where excess power – almost too cheap to meter – could heat homes and spark a major switch from carbon to green power.
Some renewable experts are already talking about the potential for the islands to become a major driving force for electric cars – which could be charged when there is too much power to export to Scotland.
Ms Croy said: “It is assumed by governments that electricity is dirty, so when we say we are going to reduce our carbon footprint by increasing electricity usage, that is totally at odds with their policy views, which is use less power and generate more renewables.
“We have done the last bit; we generate more renewables, now we want to increase our consumption; so that we are importing less fossil fuel.
“We are actually fighting against the government’s logic by doing this.
“Our problem is very simple: at the moment the cost of new grid connections; the way that they are triggered and then paid for, disadvantages generators the further away they are from London.”
Orkney imports some power but is a huge net exporter. However, just creating a single major cable across the Pentland Firth which separates it from Scotland could cost £50m-£60m.
But similar problems plague community and other green generators elsewhere in Scotland. Many are looking at ways of incentivising local demand for local power, inspired by work in off-grid communities like the island of Eigg.
Michael Rieley, Senior Policy Manager at Scottish Renewables, said: “Scotland’s islands have some of the best wind resource in Europe, and it is particularly exciting to see that they are also leading innovation in the way that we generate and use our vast renewables resources.
“Connecting the Scottish islands to the UK electricity network remains a vital step if we are to maximise the benefits of moving towards decentralised local renewables generation and away from more traditional sources of power.
“A fully-connected electricity network that sets the right incentives for consumers to respond to changes in supply, supported by the development of grid-scale storage, can create opportunities for the renewables industry which will allow us to continue to mitigate the effects of climate change and create even more investment and jobs.”