I’ve seen thousands of petrol pumps in my life, but this is my first encounter with a hydrogen refuelling station. It sits by the road in the Orkney islands, an archipelago off the north-east coast of Scotland where residents have big dreams: they want to have their cars, ferries and boilers all running on hydrogen.
As we approach the station, its normality is striking. There are no attendants in full-body hazmat suits, no sci-fi loud bangs, no bright neon signs. Just your average dispenser waiting to be used.
But Adele Lidderdale, a hydrogen project officer at the Orkney Islands Council, is a little nervous: one of her van’s sensors has been malfunctioning lately, she says, and might not accept fuel from the nozzle. Now, she plugs the nozzle into her van and steps back to the screen at the other end of the black hose. She looks relieved as the charging process starts with a hydraulic mumble from within the dispenser.
Three minutes later, the 1.4kg tank full, we drive off – all without using one single drop of petrol.
Since Orkney started planning its hydrogen-based economy in 2016, the process hasn’t always been this smooth. When five vans, including this one, arrived in 2017, the islands didn’t have hydrogen for them, as production was still not underway. After managing to charge the tanks, the planners encountered another potential issue: who can fix a broken hydrogen vehicle in a community of 21,000 people?
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In response to the challenges, the Orcadians flew in an expert to train a local mechanic, created fresh educational programmes for ferry operators and drafted regulations to update maritime law to allow hydrogen use in vessels. And they aren’t stopping there. If everything goes according to plan, by 2021 the islands will have the world’s first sea-going car-and-passenger ferry fuelled only by hydrogen.
The archipelago might seem an unlikely place for such cutting-edge aspirations. But if it can succeed, it may inspire other communities to move away from fossil fuels too. As Lidderdale says: “If we can dream that you can run a ship on hydrogen, there’s no reason others won’t follow.”
Unlike petrol or marine diesel, burning hydrogen does not, in itself, produce any harmful by-products. Now, as we drive through Orkney’s capital of Kirkwall, hydrogen combines with oxygen inside the van to produce an electrical reaction that powers the engine. The only tailgate emission is pure water. In other words, there’s no air pollution and no greenhouse gas emissions (such as carbon dioxide) that contribute to global warming. Beyond cars, hydrogen could be used to heat buildings, power electrical facilities, propel trains, ferries and cargo ships and for industrial processes.
Another benefit of hydrogen? If you have too much, you can store and transport it at a large scale with relative ease. As one Bloomberg New Energy Finance consultant wrote in a column published last year, hydrogen “is one of the most promising ways of dealing with longer-term storage, beyond the minutes, hours or days that could be met by batteries”.
But producing hydrogen is complicated. Even though it is the most abundant chemical substance in the universe, very little of it is freely available as a gas, instead forming strong bonds with other elements (for instance with oxygen to create water). You need to break up those links to “free” it for use. That process requires a great deal of electricity – electricity which may not come from “clean” sources itself, and that could be used for other purposes, for instance powering electric vehicles to begin with.
A cheaper way to produce hydrogen, meanwhile, involves using methane and carbon capture and storage (CCS). Some experts argue it might make more sense at scale, but might not be as clean. However, research published in February 2019 suggests that hydrogen produced using renewable electricity might be cost competitive and might match CCS within a decade.
But for Orkney, hydrogen via electricity works just fine. The islands already boast one of the highest densities of electric vehicles in the United Kingdom. And most crucially, thanks to sources like tidal and wave energy, Orkney creates more clean electricity that its inhabitants need. Even after exporting to the UK national grid, the islands’ winds, waves and tides generate about 130% of the electricity its population needs – all of it from clean sources.
As electricity is hard to store at a large scale (we still don’t have humongous batteries for whole communities), some tidal or wind turbines must switch off on occasions to avoid damaging the power lines to the UK mainland, which can’t be updated cheaply.
This curtailment annoys the Orcadians and it is also expensive for the communities that invest their in clean energy. They would rather keep the turbines moving or, alternatively, find a way to use them. So residents came up with an idea: what if we use surplus clean energy to produce hydrogen?
The hydrogen that Lidderdale pumped into the trunk-sized tank sitting behind our backs comes from a long, thin island called Eday, where about 130 people live.
Eday had too much clean energy and no way to use it. The island’s population had invested in a community-owned wind turbine in 2012, hoping to sell electricity back into the UK national grid and profit from the green energy revolution. But later that year, the grid operator announced that too many new turbines had sprung up in northern Scotland and that they couldn’t take all the clean energy produced, says James Stockan, Leader of Orkney Islands Council. The island is also where the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), the leading global institution for tidal energy, tries new tidal turbines in the rough Scottish waters.
With two reliable sources of clean energy, the island became an ideal place to start producing hydrogen.
But before anything else, the Orcadians wanted to know if they could produce it in the first place.
In September 2017, after research aided by a £1.4 million grant from the Scottish government, they had their answer. Inside a green trailer-sized container, they ran electricity through water to split the molecules into hydrogen and oxygen in a process called electrolysis. The oxygen was harmlessly released back into the atmosphere; the hydrogen was carefully compressed and stored into cylinders. The cylinders first were used for a humble enough application: they were converted into electricity on a fuel-cell at Kirkwall harbour, with the result of powering lights on some of the harbour’s vessels as well as heating a nearby sailor hall.
It was the proof that if you have too much wind on Friday, you can create hydrogen with it and then use it to switch on your lights, heat a room or power your car on Sunday.
After that, new projects started coming in fast. A second electrolysis station was installed on the island of Shapinsay, as well as a boiler for a school and blueprints to create a hybrid ferry. In the meantime, there were several charging stations and five retrofitted vans were running on hydrogen. But there were even bigger goals ahead.
Oil in the seas
As our ferry left the harbour, the engine growled with diesel and pistons. No-one on board seemed to mind. The dozen or so passengers on the Kirkwall-Shapinsay service remained undisturbed, chatting among themselves or browsing their phones. Our quiet acceptance of that metallic uproar every time an engine kicks off is startling: have we normalised sound pollution?
I initially came to Orkney because of this vessel. Companies and governments around the world are contemplating hydrogen as a way to clean up the polluting marine shipping industry, which is responsible for more than 2% of all global emissions of carbon dioxide. When I asked a specialist at the European Climate Foundation about the clean shipping frontier, he told me to visit Orkney.
As an archipelago of scattered isles, the Orkney islands depend on their ferry system. Medics, goods, teachers and family members hop daily between the harbours, allowing a sense of community to exist. But the ferries also consume about one-third of Orkney’s fossil fuels, hampering the islands’ ambition to become a greener place. “If you’re looking at how to decarbonise the maritime sector, this is one great way to do it,” says John Clipsham, hydrogen manager at EMEC.
The island of Shapinsay, where we are heading, is home to just over 300 inhabitants, dramatic coasts and rolling hills. Next to the pier, Steve Bews, the chairman of the Shapinsay Development Community Trust, waits for me on a white petrol-powered van. We drive through the hilly countryside and up to the wind turbine that sits atop a slope. Built in 2012, the community-owned turbine has created enough income to provide educational grants, an electric taxi for community errands (there are no taxis on the island) and a subsidy for an extra ferry ride to Kirkwall every evening. But it’s also curtailed, limiting its profitability; Bews says that 36% of its potential was going to waste.
When several organisations approached them some years ago looking for their surplus electricity to produce hydrogen in Shapinsay, the trust agreed. “We’ve got loads of electricity, it’s green and it made sense,” says Bews, who’s a builder by trade and volunteers at the community organisation.
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The electrolysis station was under construction in December 2018 and should be ready in early 2019. It will be able to produce 500 kg of hydrogen a day, roughly the daily demand of the Kirkwall-Shapinsay service if it becomes operational. The people in Shapinsay get to sell their surplus electricity and they get cheaper heating for their children: a catalytic hydrogen boiler next to the local school waits for fuel to heat its classrooms.
A while later, Bews drops me off again by the pier. Once onboard, the ferry leaves Shapinsay with its metallic song of 20th Century transportation. I wonder if its days are counted.
The journey ahead
Even if marine diesel days have an expiration date, don’t hold your breath. Orkney’s plan is a prototype. The rest of the world following will take years or decades.
Briefing – Ring of Brodgar Conservation Work
Historic Environment Scotland is about to start work on the latest phase of conservation at Ring of Brodgar. This work requires temporary access restrictions on the inner path through the circle, before we introduce our new management plan in Spring 2018. This briefing is intended to outline the work to date and our future plans, to address any questions you might have. The Site Ring of Brodgar is thought to have been constructed between 2500BC and 2000BC, originally made up of 60 stones on an earthwork henge. Today, 27 stones remain with the site attracting tourists from across the world, keen to see one of the largest stone circles in Britain. Situated on a low spur of land separating the freshwater Loch of Harray and from the saltwater Loch of Stenness, drainage at the site has long been a challenge, with paths liable to become boggy in wet weather. Hard standing paths and mains connected drainage are not considered suitable for the site due to the irreparable damage they would cause to archaeological layer and disruption to the rolling, grassy landscape that the site is set in.
Following research into drainage and footfall at other Neolithic sites, such as Stonehenge, a pilot drainage scheme was installed at the site in 2015. This proved to be successful, and through 2016 and 2017, work has been underway to install new hidden drainage system, composed of a geotextile membrane, gravel, sand and perforated pipes topped with wear-resistant turf. This arrangement draws water away from the pathways naturally, reducing boggy conditions..
Parts of the Ring have been restricted through the summer to allow work to take place, which has led to the concentration of visitors on the first area where work was completed. To allow for this section of turf to be repaired and for all of the new turf to be allowed to bed down, access to the inner path at Brodgar is to be restricted until Spring 2018. This allows us the opportunity to ensure that the newly laid turf is healthy and strong ahead of the Summer season
Restrictions from November 2017
From March 2018, we will be implementing a new active management system at Brodgar. This will see sections of pathway roped off, with Rangers on hand to direct visitors. By alternating routes around the stones, the path and turf have time to rest, helping to keep them in good condition. Temporary raised paths will also be installed on the causeways, which experience the highest volume of foot traffic, to prevent damage. Improvements on site are part of a larger plan to monitor and record the conditions of Ring of Brodgar, and we are also looking at remote visitor access options such as creating 3D digital models of the stones and the site. Restrictions from November 2017
Alternating Routes from Spring 2018
Improvements on site are part of a larger plan to monitor and record the conditions of Ring of Brodgar, and we are also looking at remote visitor access options such as creating 3D digital models of the stones and the site.