How the Orkney Islands are leading the way in renewable energy innovation

How the Orkney Islands are leading the way in renewable energy innovation

By: Ryan Jay

21 Dec 2020

Sprinkled only a few miles to the northeast of John o’ Groats - the most northerly point of the Scottish mainland - the Orkney Islands have always been regarded for their traditions. With its Norse influences and rich folklore, the archipelago has an enigmatic aura, with many well-preserved heritage sites nestled across the coastal rock faces. But while the islanders have always kept a firm eye on their history, they now have the chance to play an important role in shaping our energy future.

Launched this year, the ReFLEX Orkney project - in which Shell Energy is playing a key role - is aiming to integrate electricity, transport and heat networks across the Scottish Islands, using advanced software to balance supply and demand. The project is part of the UK Government’s investment in research and industry to develop smart energy systems. These systems could become a model for the rest of the UK as we transition quickly to more renewable energy options. But why choose Orkney, an island of little more than 20,000 residents?

Missed opportunities

The wind turbines off the coasts of the Orkney Islands are well-known, even to those with no connection to the islands. But even with a direct renewable resource, congestion on the network causes much of the energy that’s generated to be excessive. As a result, wind turbines are often switched off to protect the network from overloading. So therein lies a massive issue. It’s all well and good having a reliable renewable energy source, but if the local grid can’t handle it, then all that renewable power goes untapped.

That’s not good news for the residents. Their energy prices skyrocket because of the amount of fuel needed for heating and transport. Plus, with no gas network across the islands, homes and businesses start to rely on oil provided from the mainland to provide heat. That means that renewable energy is being cast aside for fossil fuels, despite the options available.

The ReFLEX Orkney project

ReFLEX (short for Responsive Flexibility) Orkney is a £28.5 million project aiming to create an integrated energy system (IES for short) in Orkney, Scotland. The project will interlink local electricity, transport and heat networks into one controllable, overarching system. The end result is renewable generation that's fluid to demand.

At the heart of the project is the goal of establishing a flexible method of modifying electricity generation and consumption patterns in response to the needs of the islands. To achieve this, the project will introduce up-to-date technologies like battery storage, electric vehicles, smart chargers and smart meters. The project will also introduce a unique local tariff. That’s where Shell Energy comes in.

The tariff will offer 100% renewable electricity as standard across two tariffs at some of the lowest rates on the Orkney market. Available to ReFLEX Orkney members, both domestic tariffs include smart meter installation, with one tariff providing 2,000 miles of free charge for electric vehicle drivers. It'll help equip the islands with a dependable renewable electricity tariff, and is one component of a wider localised integrated energy system.

So what are the benefits?

The project delivered by ReFLEX will help to:

  • Maximise the potential of Orkney's significant renewable generation capabilities by storing more electricity
  • Provide higher quality and more affordable energy services
  • Lower the islands’ carbon footprint by decreasing reliance on imported carbon-intensive energy from the UK mainland

But it goes beyond that. Should the project be successful, then there are opportunities to scale up. The IES model can be replicated in other areas across the UK and internationally to improve electricity networks. This would help create more flexible and renewable-based energy systems across the globe.

But this is our opportunity to perfect a model that we know is coming. The future transition to Net-Zero will hinge on how we best manage the energy systems of tomorrow. Orkney provides a great test bed and could inform how we adapt the energy grid nationwide in the decades to follow, and we’re delighted to play a crucial role in the work that’s happening there.

You can find out more about ReFLEX Orkney on their website. And, if you’re an Orkney resident, you can sign up to ReFLEX and switch to our special tariff.