Welcome to the HI-energy blog
HI-energy is an industry brand for all those involved in the energy sector here in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Here, the Energy team at Highlands and Islands Enterprise and other key figures from the energy industry in the Highlands and Islands will share their views and experiences. We look forward to hearing your comments. Please do get in touch with any suggestions for topics you would like to see covered or with posts you would like to contribute to this blog.

Marine energy: our Apollo programme

avatar October 28th, 2016 by Rona Campbell

From Calum Davidson, Director of Energy and Low Carbon, HIE. 

About this time last year, I was on a day trip to Orkney to catch up with the local MSP Liam McArthur and update him on all sorts of things energy-related. The weather forecast was dreadful – extreme gales, wind and rain – but despite the heavy skies developing gales, all the ferries in the north and west being cancelled, and severe disruption on the roads, Loganair managed to get me to Kirkwall Airport 10 minutes early. On the Saab 340 aircraft I ran into my pal Neil Kermode, managing director of the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), who had been in Inverness for a dinner with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon the previous evening, along with a number of my colleagues in HIE. The Loganair seating lottery meant we ended up next to each other, and we started chewing the fat.

Neil and I are both closely linked to the development of the marine renewables (wave and tidal) industry, Neil far more intimately than me. He has been directly involved in a decade of testing numerous wave and tidal devices in Orkney and, with his team, has helped create an impressive local supply chain. A quick look at the EMEC website shows the scale and breadth of devices that have been tested there, and gives a flavour of the support that the sector has received from the Scottish public sector. In being so focused on developing wave and tidal energy, Scotland has made some pretty brave industrial development choices for quite a wee northern European country.

Both Neil and I have dubbed our nation’s focus on the marine energy sector “Scotland’s Apollo programme – our moonshot”. It was a description we had both discussed at different times with Scottish energy ministers, and first ministers, and used in conference presentations both at home and abroad. We felt it reflected the scale of ambition of the Scottish industry, government and academia, mirroring the dramatic focus that the US had on its space programme in the 1960s.

There are some interesting parallels with a decade of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, leading to that first moon landing in the Sea of Tranquility in July 1969. After 10 years of testing and prototyping, demonstration and deployment, the autumn of 2016 has seen the Scottish tidal industry hit its Apollo 11 moment, with not one but two multi-turbine deployments: Nova Innovation in Shetland and MeyGen in the Pentland Firth.

The parallels continue, if you want to look hard enough. The failure of Scottish wave companies Pelamis and Aquamarine can be seen as mirroring the catastrophic fire of Apollo 1 (though thank goodness the Scottish marine industry has had no serious injuries or major health-and-safety incidents, unlike the loss of three astronauts on that Cape Kennedy launch pad in 1967). In both cases it was back to the drawing board, with the Apollo system redesigned from the inside out, and here in the Highlands and Islands the establishment of our HIE subsidiary company, Wave Energy Scotland, to refocus on the issues facing the wave sector in a similar, technical manner.

There is also the curious case of the new Chinese wave machine that looks remarkably similar to the Pelamis device developed in Scotland, even down to the same red-coloured paint (and an apparently suspicious break-in at their old Leith office). The story mirrors the spooky Soviet space plane of the 1980s which could be a clone of the US space shuttle. Who would have thought that the Daily Mail and Daily Express could get so excited about renewable energy technologies?

However, the local impact of such dramatic public investment in technology programmes can be critical in creating and building local knowledge, manufacturing and a deployment cluster. In the US, a complex supply chain of local contractors developed to build and support the space programme, and a more modest but similar group of Scottish and Highlands and Islands firms has also grown up around the marine industry. One of the fascinating things you pick up from the literature about the US space programme (and I’m an Apollo geek; my study shelves groan with books and DVDs about the period) is the uncanny ability of everyone involved in the programme, including the supply chain, to absorb the lessons of each mission and unconsciously feed that learning into the next project. Exactly the same thing has happened in Scotland’s marine sector, with each test deployment at EMEC and elsewhere building up that body of knowledge which then informs the design and deployment methodologies of the commercial-scale projects now under way.

However, there is one crucial difference between what happened in the States in the ’60s and ’70s with the space programme and what is happening in Scotland just now. It’s all about recording legacy, progress and artefacts. State agencies such as NASA can afford to devote substantial resources to recording and codifying their activities, and the nature of projects such as Gemini and Apollo meant that sometimes duplicate hardware was not used, and crucial artefacts were recovered and then saved for posterity.

You can see this if you are ever in Washington DC, at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. I was invited to the US capital a few years ago to give a keynote address to a major wave and tidal conference (speeches from American senators, an under secretary of energy, and me – that should give you a glimpse of how the Scottish marine sector is regarded as an industry leader in the corridors of world power).

You can see the history right in front of you as you come through the door of the museum. Under the Spirit of St Louis and the Wright Flyer there are three spacecraft in a line: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. It’s no ordinary Apollo – in fact it is Columbia, the Apollo 11 command module. There is also a real Skylab, the US’s first space station, and right at the back of the museum a complete section devoted to the moon landing programme, along with a lunar module and associated roving vehicle.

There is even more cool hardware in Florida, at Cape Canaveral, but unfortunately in Scotland artefacts from the early days of our wave and tidal industry are almost non-existent. Almost all early machines, when recovered after their testing regime, faced the cutting torch and are now recycled scrap. Some parts and components exist in various yards, sheds and scrappies in Kirkwall, Stromness and Invergordon, but their fate is uncertain. I guess the key difference is that in Scotland there has been no central, NASA-like agency overseeing the development of the sector, one which could take on the historical/heritage role.

By a strange twist of fate, the only complete machine that has been preserved is a 1MW tidal device, based on a design originally developed by Rolls-Royce subsidiary TGL, a company which was then bought by the French giant Alstom. It has been shipped to Cherbourg in Normandy to be the centrepiece of a museum there devoted to the French marine industry, even though it spent its entire operational career in Orkney.

Of course there are terabytes of photos, videos and documents recording the Scottish marine success story, and with commercial-scale arrays now being deployed in record numbers perhaps it’s time to look forward rather than back. Bits of metal are just that – big lumps of steel that rust and need looked after indefinitely. Yet knowing how you got somewhere is an important part of planning the next stage of the journey, so I do think that we in the Highlands and Islands are missing an opportunity to preserve a wee bit of what could be Scotland’s most significant contribution to energy production since James Watt developed the improved steam engine at Glasgow University in 1763.

His early models can of course be seen at the university’s Hunterian museum.


We’ve come full circle

avatar September 30th, 2016 by Rona Campbell

Calum Davidson, director of energy and low carbon at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, concludes his five-part series about energy – past and present – and its relationship with the landscapes of the North Coast 500 touring route

THE other day, on a glorious September morning, I went for my morning walk along Cromarty beach and was struck by a fairly normal but, in retrospect, fascinating sight. It is the season of equinox tides, and at low water squads of folk, conspicuous in bright yellow and red waders, were out collecting shellfish. There were some locals searching for winkles and buckies for the pot, and others collecting commercially rarer molluscs for the restaurants of Paris, Madrid and Rome. I realised that what I was seeing, in the 21st century, was perhaps the continuation of the oldest human activity in the north Highlands. Foraging for seafood at low tide is something that has happened for over 8,000 years on the coasts and beaches of Ross-shire, Sutherland and Caithness and was the very first thing that Neolithic hunter-gatherers did as they followed the retreating glaciers and ice caps up the firths and sandy bays. Their middens of limpet, mussel and buckie shells were the first human activity to make a permanent impact on the coasts of the NC500.

Behind the rocks, sand and tangle of low tide, a jumble of plant, rigs, machinery and new structures at Nigg Energy Park was reflected in the still waters of the firth. The three white blades of an Andritz  tidal turbine were prominent and their associated squat yellow foundations sitting on the quayside, now ready to be installed under the turbulent waters of the Pentland Firth during the October neap tides. There, in one view, were 8,000 years of human progress in the Highlands and Islands, from the oldest method of exploiting the power of the tides to the newest.

From knowing the ebb and flow of the tides so you can gather shellfish to building and installing some of the most sophisticated subsea machines in the world is not a straightforward leap. Yet it is a journey that innovative Highland people have travelled via fishing, shipbuilding, hydro dams, nuclear power plants and the North Sea oil industry. Some small steps, some huge engineering feats.

The first stage in reaping the benefit of the tides was once quite a common sight in the intertidal flats around the NC500. Fish traps, low curved dykes of stone built so that the falling tide forced fish to a single exit point blocked with a wooden gate where saithe, flatfish and crabs could be collected. Such traps can still be seen as shadowy lines of seaweed and stones in the Kyle of Tongue, in the Dornoch Firth and on many west coast sea lochs. In season they could also capture trout, salmon and shoaling herring. One trap or “yair” in Loch Broom caught so many herring that it was reported that, after every family in the district had been supplied with fish, a thousand baskets were left to rot.

But for the folk of the north, the next stage in harnessing the power of moving water had to be back on land, in the area’s numerous burns and streams. The remnants of Norse-style “click mills”, the simplest possible corn mill, can be seen as piles of rocks in Wester Ross burns, while complex Victorian dams and corn mills can be seen in varying stages of repair right next to the road in east Sutherland and north Caithness. The oddest example can still be seen in the grounds of the Castlehill Heritage Centre, where high-pressure water was used to drive the huge stone-cutting saws that turned Caithness flagstone into the British Empire’s pavements. In order to maintain the “head”, a small wind-powered pump was built to allow the reuse of waste water, and its stone-built beehive-shaped tower is a distinctive feature of this little piece of industrial history.

Yet it’s still a long way from grinding barley, and cutting stone, to installing tidal turbines. The Industrial Revolution, the hydroelectric boom of the 1940s and ’50s, the north’s venture into Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology”, the Dounreay experimental atomic plant near Thurso and the discovery of huge deposits of oil in the North Sea in the 1970s led to an enormous oil industry bonanza right around the Highlands and Islands. All this encouraged the local engineering and marine services businesses to move away from simply supporting agriculture and fishing and develop the expertise that would allow the complex engineering problems of combining large metal structures, moving parts, electricity and deep turbulent water to be solved.

Teeth were really cut in the ’70s and ’80s oil business. The deep-water harbours and firths of the NC500 became the location for the oil platform construction industry. Sites to build the enormous structures needed for the extraction of oil and gas from some of the most challenging seas ever attempted sprang up on both the east and west coasts of the northern Highlands. And for every location that was developed for steel and concrete towers, topsides and modules, pipe-coating works, pipeline bundle yards, there were as many crackpot schemes that never saw the light of day. Concrete structures were very much the fashion in the ’70s following their early success in the Norwegian sector, and every sea loch on the north and west coast, Loch Eriboll, Loch Broom, Loch Kishorn, was examined for construction sites and for future service bases. My favourite wacky plan was the scheme to build 10-storey-high concrete platforms on Dunnet beach, right on the route of the NC500 in Caithness, which would then have been hauled off to deep water in the Pentland Firth. The principal objector was the local sand yachting club, now sadly no longer in existence, but I do have this mental vision of huge Martian-style “War of the Worlds” structures looming over the flat Caithness landscape like some sci-fi horror movie.

In the end only a few sites were developed for concrete platforms: two in Argyll and the most famous, Kishorn in Wester Ross, just at the base of the famous Bealach na Ba, the trickiest driving bit of the whole NC500. Kishorn built the 1978 Ninian Central platform, at 600,000 tonnes the largest movable structure created by man at that time. Lochcarron was like a west coast Klondike, as the French company Howard Doris mobilised a huge 3,000-strong workforce, known as the Kishorn Commandos, to build the complex concrete storage tanks and central tower. It was a bit like building a New York skyscraper in a Highland fiord.

Ardersier, just east of Inverness, and Nigg, at the head of the Cromarty Firth, became the locations for building some of the largest steel structures, giant-girdered platforms like underwater Eiffel Towers, and their associated topsides, the oil-drilling, processing and accommodation modules that give these deep-sea factories their particular visual signature. Steel structures were also huge, and in 1984 the Magnus jacket – at 44,000 tonnes the largest steel structure built for the North Sea – was floated out from the Nigg yard in the Cromarty Firth, drawing huge crowds of onlookers.

However, by 2000 the market for new Scottish-built structures of this type had passed and the big foreign companies shut up shop and moved on to China and Korea. Yet in a strange way this allowed local companies, that had long been subcontractors to the multinationals, to grow their expertise and build on their strengths of making small subsea structures and the maintenance and repair of floating oil-drilling rigs.

Now you could argue there is not much difference between building a subsea manifold, or a deep-sea wellhead, and building a tidal turbine foundation. Laying and burying high-voltage cables and installing and retrieving machines from fast-flowing tidal waters are not trivial matters but have been done many times over the past 10 years at the industry’s test site, EMEC in Orkney, and in many oil installations across the North Sea. Tidal turbines themselves are underwater generators, using the power of moving water rather than wind to generate electricity. For complex reasons of (in my opinion) the failure of UK industrial and energy policy, Scotland does not build wind turbines, but we are pretty good at installing and maintaining them, and their complicated gearboxes and electrical plant. All very transferable skill