Shetland's ORION project is planning an energy revolution – helping the islands transition from being almost totally reliant on fossil fuels to becoming a major centre for green energy, writes Anthony Harrington


WITH its pristine landscapes, famed wildlife, incredible views and sense of remoteness, Shetland would seem to be one of Scotland’s most sustainable places.

However, as it relies almost exclusively  on fossil fuels for its energy, and given it also has two oil and gas terminals, the archipelago is the highest emitter of carbon dioxide emissions per capita in the UK.
However, fundamental change is about to take place – Shetland is developing highly ambitious plans to move the islands’ reliance away from fossil fuels to renewable energy for local use and also for export to Scotland, the UK mainland and Europe.

The plan is to transition to green energy, become a hub for renewables and establish itself as a production centre for green hydrogen by harnessing onshore and offshore wind power coupled with tidal and potentially wave resource. 

At the heart of this remarkable transformation is the ORION (Opportunity for Renewable Integration with Offshore Networks) project, a partnership to transform the islands into a centre of secure and affordable clean energy.

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One of the leading partners in this initiative is Shetland Islands Council (SIC), which has always been imaginative part mapping out the area’s economic future. As a result, the goals of the project appear nothing less than revolutionary.

ORION, whose stakeholders also include Highlands and Islands 
Enterprise, the University of Strathclyde and Net Zero Technology Centre, aims to empower Shetland to produce wind-powered green hydrogen by 2025.

It also plans to reduce emissions and allow the islands to become net zero by 2030 – a full 15 years earlier than the rest of Scotland – and create and sustain 500 jobs in the area by that date. The plan is to create a buoyant and diverse local economy by 2035.

Gunther Newcombe, the ORION Project Coordinator, concedes that all this is hugely ambitious. “The new jobs are critically important for Shetland and it wants to be an energy hub that supplies 10 per cent of the UK’s hydrogen needs by 2050.”

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Another ambition is to potentially start electrifying offshore oil and gas platforms by 2030 – another move that could abate eight million tonnes of carbon by 2050. “I think we have some fantastic ideas and opportunities,” says Newcombe.

“What we are trying to do now is to try and shape them through several  feasibility and concept studies that are ongoing. We are also planning to develop some real, on-the-ground projects.

“This year and next is a key period in trying to consolidate what we are going to do and how projects are going to be funded. That is critically important.”

It is hoped, he adds, that work on live programmes can start to happen by 2024. “We want to transform Shetland into a totally green economy with no emissions. This is one of the windiest places in the world and there is huge potential to place floating wind farms offshore.

“The power from offshore will create the green hydrogen onshore, which will then be exported. That hydrogen is the heart of ORION.”
Shetland has a proud history of innovation in energy, including launching the first operational tidal energy site anywhere in the world in 2016. 

Interestingly, this year it has also installed on the island of Yell the first electric vehicle charging point anywhere powered by this form of renewables.

Gunther Newcombe acknowledges that stakeholder engagement is critically important as ORION progresses. 

“We want to do far more to bring local communities in, and this is the right time to do that. We need to listen to what they are saying as well. We want to explain what the point of all this is – because Shetland is a very high emitter, we need to reverse fossil fuel dependency and also try to deliver more affordable energy.

“We also need to ensure that renewable energy doesn’t create environmental issues. So if we want to build hydrogen plants, we want to do so on brownfield sites that are currently used by the oil and gas sector so as not to leave any adverse footprint.”

Another sector that is being factored into the equation is fishing and aquaculture, a vital industry on the islands. Because of its importance, it is essential to ensure that it is not negatively impacted by changes.

Through the adoption of clean marine fuels, it can play its part in the overall transformation strategy.

One developing idea is for the giant Sullom Voe terminal, which currently exports oil and gas, to be used as a renewables hub with the potential export of hydrogen via tanker or through existing gas pipelines.

Gunther Newcombe commented: “SIC is working very closely with the terminal operator EnQuest. The port and terminal have a very strong agenda to reduce carbon emissions by 2025 and that’s being worked on right now.

“What is so important about ORION is that it creates the strategic framework to provide an integrated solution. If we didn’t have it, I think that things would be more piecemeal. It captures all the moving parts and ensures that things happen quickly and optimally.

“In addition, local impacts on the environment and jobs are carefully considered as it moves forward.

“ORION is genuinely exciting. Because of Covid, the whole team has been virtual since day one, but we’re well coordinated and everyone is bringing resources in.”


Partnership energises clean, green ambition

The ORION project is set to herald a profound shift in Shetland’s environmental status and economy. 

The major partners, including the islands council, have put funding  aside to develop the plans aggressively.

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Shetland aims to capitalise on its location and now counts University of Strathclyde as a strategic partner

ORION is close to launching its own website and is currently developing stakeholder relations, ensuring that local people and businesses are involved.

The project aims to capitalise on Shetland’s prime location, energy industry and marine expertise along with the desire and ambition to become a world-leading clean energy island.

It has made significant progress in the last few months and is now working on future energy needs, infrastructure requirements and business opportunities.

The council has established a Future Energy Team, with some team members involved with ORION since the very start. The team collaborates with the islands’ Clean Energy Strategy and other projects to help progress the energy transition across the Shetland.

Another significant development was the decision by the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow to join ORION as a strategic partner. This will allow the project to take advantage of Strathclyde’s expertise and its established skills base.

The partnership also helps ORION fulfil its mission of linking together industry, government, academia and the community. 

In another sign of things progressing, a workshop was held with local supply chain companies in the marine sector to understand activity in the industry and renewable energy development.

A study that will launch shortly will cast the net beyond the islands by providing insight into an integrated renewable energy vision for Shetland and North East Scotland.

This will also help to develop the business and investment cases for ORION. Separately, the first phase in an onshore power systems study to understand future electrification and infrastructure requirements started last month.

This will play a vital role in developing grid configurations, predicting future supply and power requirements for local industry and domestic users, and looking at the future production of hydrogen 
and potential offshore requirements.

Councillor Robbie McGregor, the Vice Chair of Shetland Islands Council’s Environment and Transport Committee, says: “ I am really pleased to see the progress that the ORION project team is making.

“The council must make sure that Shetland continues to engage with the increasing global drive towards a clean energy future. There are so many potential developments, and the benefits will pass us by if we are not fully connected with progress.”