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Skills in Highlands and Islands can be harnessed – just like the tides

By Rob Gibson

It’s clear that this second age of renewable energy needs a mix of many sources to meet complex requirements to combat climate change, for heat, transport and electronic communications.

Battery storage techniques are advancing rapidly. A good example is the domestic storage from the output of wind power on Orkney as a response to grid constraints to the mainland. Another is the Thurso factory, Denshi Power, making batteries for military purposes.

These innovation on our islands and in Caithness show we are part of this exciting phase of development. Another benefit from being resource rich and relatively remote from London’s policy command is manifest. Top jobs are attracted to work here, incentivised by steady Scottish Government support and the knowledge that skills gained through the University of the Highlands and Islands can be used to help make energy storage and local smart grids which will benefit many smaller communities here and elsewhere in future.

Two other developments stand out over the last month. There’s a considerable lobby pushing hydrogen as opposed to electric to power vehicles and vessels. At a local level, Orkney Islands Council is consulting, as I write, on the Orkney Hydrogen Strategy. In Aberdeen, on a much larger scale, a hydrogen study budgeted at £100,000 is mapping the hydrogen future for the ‘energy capital’ of Scotland as transition from oil and gas is now serious.

Aberdeen City Council, Scottish Enterprise and Opportunity North East (ONE) are tendering for a practical plan to turn the city into a clean energy hub. Aberdeen already has a fleet of fuel cell powered buses and lots of technical expertise.

Trevor Garlick, chairman of ONE, stated recently: “Hydrogen presents regional and global opportunities for north-east Scotland’s existing infrastructure and skills base and an opportunity to build on our regional competitive advantage to deliver energy transition.”

I hope to see such skills and expertise across Caithness, the Cromarty Firth and Inverness marshalled in a similar way. Will Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Highland Council and private companies create our own energy hub?


At this time of year our annual visit to Brittany on the wild, north-west coast of France prompts comparison and contrast of their renewables’ development. On a sunny day we walked with friends to the Pointe du Raz, Beg ar Raz in Breton.

It’s the most westerly promontory in France with beetling cliffs ending in ragged outcrops on which lighthouses were built to safeguard shipping and the ferries to the Ile de Sein, Enez Sun, a low-lying sliver of land five kilometres out in an often stormy ocean.

The tide races are apparent in my photograph but are, as yet, unharnessed here. That said, experiments are under way off Brehat island in Cote d’Armor facing the English Channel.

Pointe du Raz.
Pointe du Raz.

I was reminded of my first visit to Brittany in 1990 with some Scottish and Breton friends. We made a similar walk to Beg ar Raz after visiting the commune of Plogoff, a little inland on Cap Sizun. In 1979 and 1980 this scattered farming and holiday place was threatened to be the site of a nuclear power complex by the French Government’s nationalised electricity firm EDF, Electricity de France.

A massive resistance by local people and nationwide activists led to huge demonstrations against the desecration of what would later become the Parc Naturel Marin d’Iroise. Clashes between protesters and military police were summed up by the symbol of resistance, the catapult, against the tear gas of charging, fully armed soldiers. ‘Les mouton, pas des neutrons’, sheep not nuclear was the cry.

Fortunately, the nuclear option was dropped on a promise of Francois Mitterand, the incoming French President, in 1981. It was a famous victory against nuclear expansion in Brittany. However, despite small groups of wind turbines on the hillsides of Cap Sizun, the power of the sea has yet to ensure perpetual electricity production for the region.

Recent news this summer shows tidal stream trials with a one-megawatt scheme off Brehat by Hydroquest. Like the more advanced turbines of Meygen in the Pentland Firth, it is hoped their design can have wider application and perhaps capture global markets. We shall see.

A test tidal device at Brehat.
A test tidal device at Brehat.

To win the transition to tidal power, both French and British energy policies are going to have to change. Each needs to invest heavily, not grudgingly. Yet the vested interests of the nuclear industry still corners the market on both sides of the Channel. Remember, EDF has a stake in Hinkley Point and a huge monopoly in France itself.

We should never forget the direct link between military and civil nuclear development in both these states. The French ‘force de frappe’ sits 30 miles north of the Pointe de Raz near Brest; the UK equivalent on the Clyde.

Around this time of annual remembrance of nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that are said to have hastened the end of World War II, we cannot forget their nuclear destruction. Also, a recent TV programme about Chernobyl showed us a map of nuclear pollution down the spine of Scotland, reminding us of the threats of nuclear mistakes in eastern Europe.

As the tides flows twice daily through the Pentland Firth and past the Pointe du Raz, surely the peaceful transition to clean power of wind, sun and sea must not be delayed?

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