Can you feel the wind? Can you feel the power of Nature, the primordial breath of our world, running across the rocks and sea of the Orkney Islands? Can you feel it tearing at your jacket and your hair, as you desperately seek shelter that is only ever a half measure?
This is energy, a power that has too long been forgotten and has gone untapped by human kind, who would rather dig up and burn fuel than embrace the natural forces of the world. But that time has passed; I am proof enough of that, even though I have seen better days. Follow the wind and you will find me, where I have fallen, all but forgotten. I lie on a rocky peak overlooking the Orkney Islands that have been my home for more than half a century, and which will soon enough become my tomb.
I am the first wind turbine on Orkney and even through my time has passed and I no longer stand as tall as I once did, my gaze sees far and my memory still holds true. As I lie here I do not begrudge my end – though a little more reverence would not have been out of order – for I have full view of my legacy, here where the wind and the ocean remains a constant reminder of what power truly is.
My story began as far back as the 1950’s in the nascent beginning of the alternative energy movement. I rose above Orkney, a titan of steel and concrete, but I was only the beginning. Technological advancement soon saw me replaced – as so many others after me have been replaced – and today countless privately owned wind turbines supply the citizens of these distant isles with more than enough power, while experimental wave and tide energy plants increase this supply even further. Not only the wind and ocean but the very electrical grid of Orkney is ripe with energy.
And as technology advances and the ever looming threats of global climate change and dwindling fossil fuel resources has grown, Orkney should have been a shining beacon for energy advancement. A 2016 report from the UK National Infrastructure Commission even mentions many of the advancements made on Orkney: an infrastructure allowing for sharing of abundant natural energy resources, the implementation of grid batteries to ensure a constant and reliable flow of electricity and local flexible power production.
There is just one problem. The report never mentioned Orkney. The reasons are not clear but one thing is certain: Just like my broken body, left atop a cliff overlooking the roaring ocean, Orkney and all that have been achieved here, have been forgotten.
Like I said, my own unceremonious entombment is not what troubles me. By all means let my bones become a monument to where we came from, and how far we have come. No, my fear is for my legacy, my grand children and their children. Are they fated to the same demise as I?
Will the majestic eye of OpenHydro one day look unmoving at an ocean that it no longer harness, welcoming travelers to an energy future the mainland forgot? And what of its 7 siblings, other promising wave energy plants that might be headed for a similar fate? It is an uncomfortable notion when you look at the Alstom 1 MW tide turbine slowly rusting on the pier of Kirkwall.
Even the dreams of a far reaching, interdependent power infrastructure could be furthered if only Orkney’s single underwater cable was to be joined by another. The cable transfers excess power from Orkney to the mainland, but it is at capacity and as it stands, the billion pounds investment in an additional cable seems to be low on the agenda; the energy concentrated in the Orkney power grid and grid battery, is ripe for the taking but seem destined to be left on the vine to dry up… or rot.
So easily we forget the advancements made by those on our borders. At the edge, a brighter future has already come to pass but it has been forgotten. And if we forget what has come before… well all that work will have gone to waste, and by the time the main land catches up to its forgotten outpost, it may be too late.
This is my fear but along with that fear, I have found hope and faith, not in the decision makers in London or the reticent energy corporations, but in the people here at the edge.
Below me I can see the city of Kirkwall. Here there is talk of a marine energy museum, a way to ensure that the Alstrom will be granted a more respectful internment than I. Just like I stand as a incidental monument of the beginning, such a museum holds the promise of remembrance for how far we have come: the challenges, ingenuity and the successes of the Orkney energy experiments. Here our forward strides will not be lost to time, for the people at the edge do not forget. Their past and the past of the marine energy experiments are intertwined, and more importantly the people of Orkney are proud of what they have accomplished, and the path they walked along the way.
The people of Orkney are dealing with the present as well. When the government of distant London will not tether them to the mainland they have found other ways of utilizing their energy surplus. No fruits will rot on the vine while the people of Orkney tend the field. Orkney boast the highest number of electric cars per person anywhere in the UK, and have banded together to buy a hydrogen fuel plant. There they turn their excess energy into hydrogen fuel that powers the ferries between the islands and the mainland. Against all the odds, the energy of Orkney reaches the mainland, whether the mainland wants it or not.
And when I turn my gaze further afield, I see more reasons for hope across the North Sea in the small city of Hanstholm on the vest coast of Jutland. Just as Orkney, Hanstholm exists on the edge, largely forgotten, but they too are the sight of wave energy experiments. But unlike here, this is a new development, and the locals have yet to see the impact of these new energy sources.
But the soil of this distant shore is rich and ready for the seed of the energy future to be planted. Researchers have done this and from their fields walking sticks have grown. But these are not simply branches to lean on, but guides on a tour through the hidden world of new energy.
Inside the walking sticks a recording is housed, ready to take you on The Energy Walk. The poetic narration of the Walk combined with the natural beauty of Hanstholm and its energy infrastructure hiding in plain sight, is meant to evoke an emotional response in the listener and to spark their imagination.
In this way the Energy Walk lifts the veil, revealing the positive impact of new energy sources, and in time the Walk might be an example of how others can come to see what the people of Orkney have seen: that in spite of its invisibility, energy is not separate from us but completely entwined to our lives.
And as I return to the bedrock of Orkney, the relentless wind rushing across me, my last thought is one of hope. No change comes un-contested, but I do not see a future that is bleak. I have seen the strength and conviction of those living on the edge, unwilling to be forgotten, and I have faith in them.