We are an enormous energy laboratory

In the third of a series of four energy-themed articles marking the 50th anniversary of the Highlands and Islands Development Board (now Highlands and Islands Enterprise), Calum Davidson, director of energy and low carbon at HIE, looks at how the north of Scotland became a world leader in some aspects of energy technology


SCOTLAND is big on world firsts: penicillin, pneumatic tyres, television, telephone, steam engines, insulin, all developed in Scotland or by Scots. Indeed HIE’s own John Shepherd-Barron was famous for being one of the inventors of the automated cash machine. Yet cutting-edge innovation is something that folk tend not to associate with the Highlands and Islands. If you know where to look, though, there is some fascinating industrial archaeology that shows where the north of Scotland was, and indeed is, a world leader in energy technology. In fact we are an enormous energy laboratory.

Dounreay’s iconic dome is the most obvious, but the nearby peat bog of Altnabreac was the home to an experimental peat-fired power station in 1954, amazingly using powdered peat to run a gas turbine. That’s a peat-fuelled jet engine. If you look carefully at the cliff-top at Costa Head in Orkney you will see the foundations of Scotland’s first wind turbine, again tested in the ’50s. Nearby Burgar Hill was the UK’s main wind test site during the ’70s and ’80s; a remarkable 3MW turbine was built there in 1985. That size of machine that would not be available commercially for another 20 years. The waters of Loch Ness were the home to the world’s first wave device, Salter’s nodding ducks, installed there in 1976.

So it was no surprise that by the end of the ’70s the HIDB turned its attention to the growth of what were known as alternative energy resources, and started to explore opportunities for the Highlands and Islands in delivering the energy sources of the future. The massive hike in oil prices in the mid-’70s had not only provided a fillip for the oil and gas sector in the North Sea but had created the economic conditions for exploring alternative fuels for heat and power, particularly in Scotland’s energy intensive sectors. So in September 1980 the board hosted a major conference in Aviemore, chaired by the Secretary of State for Scotland, “Energy in the ’90s”, which promoted the Highlands and Islands as a “geographical test bed” for nuclear, wave and wind power; offshore oil and gas; hydro power; solar energy; peat and timber. This was followed by a series of international conferences in Inverness throughout the ’80s looking at energy needs of rural and island communities, with a strong focus on wind, wave and biomass.

The HIDB helped apply these early renewable technologies to the problems facing small islands which were not on the National Grid. In 1982 the board invested in the UK’s first community-based wind power scheme, with diesel backup, on Fair Isle in Shetland. Similarly the island of Foula is not connected to any mainland electricity grid system. In 1987 a community electricity scheme was constructed, comprising a 3.3kV island grid which linked diesel generators, a wind turbine and a hydroelectricity scheme to the island’s properties. The board also supported alternative energy technology demonstrators, including the installation of a sea-based heat pump for Iona Abbey.

BY the ’80s it was also clear that the major programme of new commercial forest planning in the post-war decades, and especially in the ’70s, had resulted in an increasing programme of timber felling which was then due to expand for several decades to come. In response to this opportunity the board was active in encouraging new forest industries to develop in the region, both for wood processing and wood fuel use. The HIDB supported the installation of a state-of-the-art biomass boiler at Tormore Distillery in Speyside, fuelled by forestry waste, and supported the development of a wood board plant at Dalcross, where bark and wood waste produced all the heat and steam needed for manufacturing.

The HIDB also explored the prospects for peat exploitation in the Highlands and Islands, with a view to bringing lasting economic development to the areas most lagging behind in terms of economic development, which happened to coincide with significant peat resources. There had been a recent period of innovation in mechanised peat harvesting in Finland for large-scale uses such as combined heat and power (CHP) plants, activated carbon, charcoal manufacture and horticulture. These technologies were studied and brought over to the Highlands for small-scale demonstrations at sites in Lewis, Caithness, Orkney and Shetland, which encouraged local entrepreneurs to invest in small-scale, mechanised peat harvesting operations across the region.

Two large-scale proposals for commercial investment in fuel peat for CHP and charcoal manufacture came close to a positive decision to invest, but in the end these efforts were unsuccessful and remain examples of where the HIDB and subsequently HIE invested in research and promotion of novel projects that didn’t always result in success at the large scale. There were, however, a number of spin-offs from the involvement with Finnish and Swedish technologies that fed through into the subsequent adoption of modern wood combustion and energy generation investments in the Highlands.

HIE’s focus was on supporting the diversification of the energy supply chain, and encouraging inward investment to grow regional capacity in the energy sectors. However, by the mid-’90s it was clear that onshore wind was starting to move from prototype to early-stage commercial deployment, with the Novar wind farm in 1997 being one of the first developed in Scotland. With land reform and community ownership of land rising up the political agenda, community control of renewable resources was seen as a priority by HIE. Mindful of the experience of hydro power, where the lasting benefits and local impact of major infrastructure projects were quite limited, HIE established a Community Energy Unit, tasked with supporting the development of community-based renewables projects and directly facilitating them through a dedicated support fund.

Successfully developing a wide range of projects, the Community Energy Unit spun out from HIE as a social enterprise and, as Community Energy Scotland, continues to develop and deliver projects across the region. In 2015 there are 350 community energy projects across the region, including 33MW of generation and with 400MW in the pipeline.

The growing significance of the onshore wind sector opened new opportunities for the Highlands and Islands. Local civil contractors, many with long experience in the hydro sector, were active in site preparation and road-building, as well as providing plant and equipment. HIE supported the establishment of a tower manufacturing plant at Campbeltown in Argyll, and a strong local supply chain was mobilised to build the Beatrice deepwater offshore wind farm demonstrator in the Moray Firth. HIE also undertook a comprehensive programme of public awareness campaigns into issues around renewable energy in the Highlands and Islands.

Yet to many in the Highlands, and across Scotland, it was galling that the turbines and blades of local wind farms were being imported from Denmark. The Danes had built a multi-billion-euro industry through the ’80s and ’90s and were the clear world leaders in this growing sector, exporting across the globe. But what was really infuriating was that Scotland had been a major player in wind turbines in the ’70s and ’80s. Indeed, as a student, I remember walking past massive engineering sheds in Glasgow where hundreds of the early turbines destined for California’s Altamont Pass wind farm were being manufactured. But not long after the time I moved back to the Highlands in the mid-’80s, manufacturing had ceased, the sheds were demolished, and rumour had it that the patents had been sold – to Denmark. So it was a real concern in 1999, when it was clear that the embryonic wave and tidal sector was ready to move out of the lab and test tank, how the growth of the wind sector highlighted that Scotland had missed out on the manufacturing opportunities from turbines.

Determined that this would not happen a second time, HIE looked closely at Denmark to see how Scotland could maximise the benefit from marine renewables. Danish wind experience highlighted the importance of full-scale testing, for technology development but also for knowledge acquisition and cluster development. Accordingly, in 2003 HIE led a UK consortium to develop the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, a fully grid-connected wave and tidal test centre, which cemented Scotland’s global lead in the marine renewable sector.


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