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Promoting Unst Renewable Energy Project in Scotland's Northern Isles
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by Ross Gazey, Shetland Renewable Energy Forum and Technical Advisor, PURE Project

Promoting Unst Renewable Energy (PURE) Project

wind turbine nacelles
The wind turbine nacelles arrive in the northern Shetland Islands in Scotland.

200 miles north of the Scotland mainland the residents in the Shetland Islands are already experiencing the future realities of energy prices. In Unst, the most northerly island in the United Kingdom, a dedicated team of local visionaries have worked together with global experts to assess the ability of alternative energy systems to deliver not only electricity, but also the fuel of the future – hydrogen.

Promoting Unst Renewable Energy (PURE) is a pilot project that will demonstrate how wind power and hydrogen technology can be combined to provide the energy needs for five business units in a remote rural industrial estate.  As the first community owned renewable energy system of its kind to achieve funding anywhere in Europe, it represents an important milestone in the development of green energy systems.

PURE Background

wind turbine towers arriving in Unst
The wind turbine towers arrive in Unst.

Being the most northerly island in the UK, Unst is effectively at the end of the supply chain for all externally produced commodities including energy.  An energy balance study recently conducted on Shetland’s three most northerly islands, Unst, Yell and Fetlar, highlighted that within Unst more than 50% of the residents spend approximately 20% of their household income on energy.  This energy was primarily used for heating and transportation. During severe winter weather, where wind chill penetrates even well insulated buildings, the cost of heating rises significantly.   The heavy demand on transportation energy is typical of many remote communities but its costs are compounded by the high fuel price (recorded at $6.32 a gallon (US) at the time of writing).

A recent study compiled by Garrad Hassan & Partners Ltd has shown the net load factor output recorded from the five existing commercial wind turbines in Shetland to be over 50%.   This makes the wind resource in Shetland among the best in Europe if not the world, but its intermittent and unpredictable nature means that it requires a significant amount of load management and energy storage in order to provide a dependable energy supply. The limitations of the isolated Shetland electricity network mean that the Distribution and Network Operator cannot accommodate any more firm connections from renewable sources. This has meant that for the foreseeable future, any renewable energy projects within Shetland must either be developed as an off-grid system, or must incorporate a substantial amount of storage to provide a guaranteed supply.

It was realised at an early stage that hydrogen technology could provide an energy storage medium and load managing mechanism for the surplus energy produced by the wind turbines in periods of low consumption.   The stored hydrogen can then be used as and when required, either for re-conversion to electricity via a fuel cell to balance the output from the energy system or used directly as fuel for heating and transportation in much the same way as LPG or gasoline.

PURE Development

Ross Gazey discussing career possibilities of hydrogen
At a careers workshop, Gazey talks about the possibilities that hydrogen offers.

Ross Gazey conceived the concept of the PURE project early in 2002.  After growing up on a small farm in the north of Unst, he gained an appreciation for the energy present in the natural environment from a very early age.  After graduating in Electronic & Electrical Engineering from the Robert Gordon University in 2001 in Aberdeen, Scotland, he looked for ways in which he could apply the knowledge he gained during the degree course to do something back home in Unst.

He brought to the local community development agency, the Unst Partnership, his vision of producing locally an alternative to fossil fuels from renewable energy, which emits no carbon. The Unst Partnership Manager Sandy Macaulay saw the project as helping to address some of the principal development aspirations of the community. In laying the foundations in Unst of an embryonic hydrogen economy, Sandy took the original project concept conceived by Ross and developed it into a project plan that consists of four development phases.

The first phase was to complete a technical feasibility study that sought to match available renewable energy and hydrogen technology to the needs of small businesses in Unst, in a manner that can act as a demonstration for further development. At this stage Ross was contracted by the Unst Partnership to conduct the feasibility study. Sandy raised the finance to complete this phase of the project from Scottish Executive, Shetland Islands Council, and Shetland Enterprise. The feasibility exercise resulted in transferring invaluable technical advice from, and forging a close working relationship with, AMEC, Shetland Wind-Power Ltd., and siGEN Ltd., an innovative Aberdeen-based hydrogen fuel cell systems integration company.

The second phase of the project was to begin the local acquisition of specialist skills, and to promote a more widespread understanding and awareness within the community of the potential of renewable energy developments in Unst.  This was started early in 2003 through community meetings and workshops – many supported by the Shetland Renewable Energy Forum (SREF).  In addition, presentations were made by the PURE Project Team to local politicians and officials from the Shetland Islands Council (SIC) to make them aware of the strategic importance and potential opportunities arising from hydrogen technologies.  As a result, the SIC has invested in hydrogen fuel cell kits for use by science teachers in local secondary schools. This schools hydrogen-learning program is now supported by the SREF.

the PURE project
The PURE project will combine wind power and hydrogen technology to provide the energy needs for five business units in a remote rural industrial estate in Unst.

During this stage, Ross also completed specialist training on Fuel Cell and hydrogen systems facilitated by siGEN Ltd. in Aberdeen. The training and educational elements of the PURE Project are being further developed during 2004 and 2005 through the formal involvement of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, collaborating on a Knowledge Transfer Programme (a UK Government Department of Trade & Industry supported program). The KTP is focused on the implementation of the hydrogen elements of the PURE Project under the guidance of siGEN.  Again, Sandy achieved financial support for this element from the main public sponsors of the capital investment in the PURE project – outlined below.

The third phase of the project plan was the achievement of the capital investment in the demonstration project identified during phase one, and its implementation in Unst.  The focus for the project was the island’s industrial estate. After a substantial effort by the PURE project team, the local authority issued planning permission for the PURE Project in September 2003 and all the funding was confirmed by the end of January 2004.  The funding package was a complex mix of local, Scottish and European funding, including grants from the European Regional Development Fund, Highlands & Islands Enterprise, Shetland Enterprise, Shetland Islands Council and the Unst Partnership’s own resources. Skills based investment was achieved through the support of the DTI and the development of a strong working relationship with siGEN, RGU, and the Health & Safety Executive. SiGEN was contracted to deliver the project plant, with local Shetland contractors employed to undertake the installation.

The fourth phase of the project involves capitalising on the wide range of opportunities arising from the PURE project.  To this end, the SREF have commissioned a feasibility study to identify the commercial potential for establishing an applied hydrogen study centre within Shetland to build on the interest in, and development potential of, the PURE Project. This phase aims to consolidate and wherever possible formalise the partnerships and links already established between the Unst based project team and academic institutions, multinational corporations and local SMEs. The principle aim of developing these partnerships is to secure further investment in the development of hydrogen applications and in the skills necessary to support these developments.  As an integral part of this, the SREF has also seen the need and value of drafting a Shetland Hydrogen Strategy. In the absence of a UK or Scottish Hydrogen Strategy, this initiative is likely to have considerable influence over the formation of such strategic documents elsewhere in the country.

PURE system

map of the Shetland Islands
This map of the Shetland Islands shows Unst as the most northerly island

The hardware that makes up the PURE system consists of the primary renewable energy system, the secondary hydrogen system and the energy conservation measures.  The primary renewable energy component comprises of two proven engineering wind turbines rated at 15kW each installed on community council owned land.  These wind turbines directly supply all heating requirements of the five business units.  The wind turbines are now in the process of being installed on site and are projected to start producing power to the business units by the end of June 2004. The hydrogen subsystem used for generating and storing the hydrogen gas consists of a controllable electrolyser with an electrical consumption of between 2kW and 7kW with a daily output of approximately 2kg of hydrogen per day.  The exact details of the manufacturer will only be finalised on completion of a comprehensive review of the pros and cons of currently available systems. It is likely that the gas storage mechanism will consist of metal hydrides that can store large amounts of hydrogen at low pressures in a relatively compact size.  The hydrogen bulk storage will also provide a dispensing facility to refill other metal hydride bottles for use in fuel cell vehicle range extenders and other hydrogen applications as an alternative to fossil fuels.  A 5kW Plug Power Gencore Fuel Cell provides a back-up supply of electricity to the business units for essential services from the stored hydrogen.  The fuel cell has arrived at the siGEN laboratory for inspection before shipment to the project site in Unst.

Conservation measures designed to improve energy efficiency at the industrial estate by up to 30% include cavity wall insulation, roof insulation, draft excluders, energy saving lighting and improved utilisation of equipment.  These measures have already reduced the need of installing three 15kW wind turbines to two resulting in a net financial saving to the project of over $35,000.

The complete PURE system will be electronically controlled with a proprietary management system developed specifically for this type of energy system to ensure optimised efficiency of all the elements of the hybrid system, including hydrogen fuel cells.  Detailed monitoring and analysis of system performance will also be deployed to maximise learning opportunities and further developments.

PURE Future

business units with wind turbines in the background
The business units with a representation of the wind turbines in the back.

The PURE Project has already created 2˝ full-time employment opportunities on Unst, attracted over $500,000 of inward investment, transferred new high-level technical skills to local graduates, and resulted in the start of 1 new local business.  The PURE project has generated considerable interest within other island communities in Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles and Argyll, and was awarded the Scottish Green Energy Award for most innovative community project in 2003.  Although it may take up to 10 years for the capital costs of the plant to become cheap enough to attract a broad customer base for this kind of system, the scale of cost reduction over the past year provides evidence of the future trend towards its widespread appeal. When these types of hybrid energy systems become sufficiently commercialised to produce an alternative energy source that is cheaper and cleaner to fossil fuels, it’s market and its beneficiaries will be worldwide.  Since the beginning of the PURE project a Shetland based company is now in the process of constructing the UK’s second hydrogen powered eco-marathon vehicle, the Gh2ost II. 

The future will see exciting developments in all areas of hydrogen technologies designed to enable a hydrogen economy to become a reality.  As Unst and Shetland as a whole are now involved at an early stage we have the opportunity, to become an integral part of these developments. ©2003. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of the National Hydrogen Association.
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