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The Ring of Brodgar stone circle on Orkney

Book review: ‘Energy at the End of the World’ by Laura Watts

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This Orkney Islands saga is an engaging account of cutting-edge technology at the geographical margins.

Have you been to Orkney? It’s a bigger question than ‘Have you been to Stevenage?’, for example. Most places can be conveniently compressed into a guide that shows you what to see and how much it will cost. The Orkneys are different. This cluster of islands sits in a position to the north of mainland Scotland where it appears to be at a sweet spot for nature’s forces – the wind and the sea (not so much the sun!) and, possibly as a consequence, seems to have developed a pioneering and inspiring personality of its own.

‘Energy at the End of the World: An Orkney Islands Saga’ by Laura Watts (The MIT Press, £27, ISBN 9780262038898) is clearly not a travel guide, but it does emphasise the role that the Islands and the islanders play in this inspiring ‘energy project’. Calling it a project is disingenuous however; it is so much more than that. As the book describes, in charming fashion, the growth and success of the renewable energy industry in the Orkneys is not just about deploying generating technology, but is a more fundamental relationship between the islanders and survival.

Watts’ book encapsulates this in a compelling read. It starts off in a fairly folksy tone – Watts is also a poet - that thankfully settles down quickly into a very readable storytelling style. The overarching story is how the Orcadians have adapted themselves to a life fuelled by renewable energy. That is a big change – with limited population and traditional industries like farming and fishing dominating traditional life, moving to the high-tech sector is a big step.

It has also been superficially very successful. Orkney produces 104 per cent of its electricity needs from its own renewable resources and in fact has to limit its production sometimes as the infrastructure doesn’t allow export to the mainland grid on account of the inadequate cables across the Pentland Firth. This is just one of the obstacles faced by renewable-energy businesses on Orkney. Another major obstacle was the withdrawal of central support for wave and tidal energy, a field where the Orkneys excel on a global basis through their European Marine Energy Centre and other projects.

As ‘Energy at the End of the World’ describes throughout, there are many facets to this story. There is frustration along with hope and inspiration. Its role as a ‘living laboratory’ is a source of immense pride, yet the Orcadians see themselves as lab rats while electricity provider SSE calls the tune – bragging about the tests of its ‘Smart Grid’, yet constraining that grid by the cables to the mainland.

Throughout, the explanations are clear and complete. They offer the reader with no knowledge of power distribution enough of a working understanding to make sense of the story. The power community will not find it dumbed down and probably rather enjoy the familiarity of their home turf while the bewildering scope of the Orkney story unfolds. Rather than thinking of electricity provision as a grid, it is more of a mesh. It is not just the components like wind turbines, tidal and wave energy being pumped into the system, there is creativity in the way the energy is exploited - using more electricity for charging electric cars, grid battery and hydrogen generation.

Technology is not new in this part of the world. Orkney has been at the forefront of it for near enough 6,000 years. It was at the heart of Neolithic technology. There are theories that the Ring of Brodgar stone circle was the blueprint for Stonehenge, which came 400 years later. While the implication is that innovation is in the islands’ DNA, it means there are additional obstacles - or at least compromises - in the form of heritage preservation. The Neolithic sites, of which there are many, are collectively recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is part of the collaborative society.

Watts observed on her many trips to the Orkneys that this collaborative spirit is essential in business as well as in society. You can’t step on a competitor’s toes, she points out: “Everyone must work together in this collaborative business model.”

I confess this book had a tendency to wander off on tangents, such as a chapter about Orkney’s role in shaping Mary Shelley’s second Frankenstein monster, a character that recurs several times in her pioneering novel. Another chapter could be summarised by ‘It is always windy here’, although the descriptive Watts adds gives perspective on top of the facts. This perhaps stretches the pages count beyond what the subject matter requires, but then this is not intended to be a straight-down-the-middle textbook.

Instead, it is an engaging account of life at the edge, both figuratively, as the cutting edge of technology, and literally, in terms of being on the geographical margins. Ultimately it is an inspiring story of how a community is using the latest technology to create a better society, possibly even a better world.

However, it is also a story that reflects the charm and the allure of the place. Watts says: “It gives you stretchy belly thread and weaves you into the Orkney tapestry. You get drawn into the island story. Perhaps it is working through me now, luring you to Orkney.”

As someone who has been to the Orkneys and covered the renewable energy story in ‘Fighting the Headwinds’ for E&T last year, I recognised not only the companies and individuals who Watts interviewed for this book, but also the enormous affection for the place that comes from its natural beauty, history and people. If you haven’t been to the Orkneys, I would urge you to make the trip - and read this book before you go.

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