ORKNEY and Davos might not seem like names that go together, but at the World Economic Forum earlier this year, a video about a low-carbon project on the islands caused a buzz. Made by the European Marine Energy Centre, it showed the wind and rain-lashed shores of Orkney, describing it as a “renewable energy powerhouse”.

“In 2017,” it said, “Orkney was the first to generate hydrogen from tidal power, using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.” Actor, environmentalist and hydrogen-advocate Leonardo DiCaprio shared that video on Instagram. It has been viewed 27,000 times. The world had its eyes on little Orkney as a possible beacon of low-carbon hope.

It is not the first time Orkney has been there first or best. Back in 1951, the first grid-connected wind turbine was erected in buffeting gales at Costa Head. In 1987, a giant experimental concrete turbine, the largest of its kind, was inaugurated on Burgar Hill. Orkney was where, in 2008, the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) installed Scotland’s first grid-connected tidal device, and last year, a flagship tidal energy turbine generated more electricity in its first year than the whole of Scotland’s wave and tidal sector produced before it.

The carbon intensity of the electricity that Orkney generates and feeds into the main grid is almost the lowest anywhere in the world, at just 13g CO2/kWh. Only El Hierro, in the Canary Islands, beats it.

Hydrogen is Orkney’s latest possible game-changer. New projects on the islands are fitting ferries to run on the gas, which is produced from local renewables.

Hydrogen boiler heating systems are being fitted into a primary school. Orkney Islands Council, a significant force in the developments, is running a fleet of hydrogen-fuelled vans.

A key player in these changes is the wave and tidal test and research centre, EMEC. Its hydrogen manager Jon Clipsham says that a favourite phrase at the centre is “the art of the possible”.

“With these projects we’ve proved it’s possible,” he says. “It also has to happen. If it doesn’t we’ve got nothing to hand over to the next generations, because I’m more than of the opinion that the climate is changing, and quite rapidly now.”

What is it about these islands? Partly, of course, it’s the climate and location itself – the rapid tidal currents that run through its sounds, the constant winds. It’s also that for decades it struggled with the fact that it is an island, connected to the mainland electricity by an undersea cable, and suffers the worst fuel poverty in the UK – partially caused by being off the gas grid and stuck with one of the highest rates for grid electricity.

Hydrogen technology has developed in Orkney, in part, because the islands had a problem.

This archipelago with its now more than 500 wind turbines and developing tidal renewables was generating too much electricity for its own needs – it now produces the equivalent of 120% of its electricity demand – and wasn’t able to send more down the line to the grid.

The cable connecting to the mainland could only carry a small fraction of what it was generating.

Communities had erected wind turbines but were not seeing the expected revenue returns, and were having their generation curtailed, some to just 50% of what they could generate. So great is the problem that currently there is a moratorium on further wind development.

Clipsham says: “The huge expansion in renewable energy led to a point where there was more energy being produced than we could feed back through the cable to the mainland. That meant those who had invested in wind technologies were unable to get the revenue they were looking for.”

This was particularly frustrating, says Clipsham, because the sheer abundance of natural wind and tide resource on the islands meant “you could deploy 100 times, possibly more, of it than what we’ve currently deployed”.

Community groups had bought in to the idea of using the feed-in tariffs as a means of generating revenue for projects and services but weren’t seeing the expected payback. A further issue is that while Orkney is host to incredible renewables potential, the communities also suffer the worst fuel poverty in the UK. A factor in this is that there is no gas grid on Orkney and the electrical supply can cost as much as 17p per kWh, making it among the highest in the UK.

The Orkney community was looking to find answers to these problems and, around seven years ago, EMEC began to look at using the renewables technology to make hydrogen by electrolysis. “EMEC has always been very future-focused,” says Jon Clipsham, “and hydrogen is not new. It’s been around for a long, long time. Iceland had a boom-and-bust cycle. But we began to look at it.

“Thoughts of how we need to decarbonise the world were very present. By 2015/16, things had really some momentum and we decided to go for hydrogen.”

The first project was Surf ’n’ Turf, a wind and tidal energy project that was all about grid balancing, in which energy was harvested when it couldn’t be put into the grid, stored, and regenerated as electricity when there was the opportunity to export it.

However, it was quickly recognised that the hydrogen could also be used as a fuel. “The premise,” says Clipsham, “shifted from grid balancing to setting us off on the journey which we are now well advanced with, towards having a fledged hydrogen economy.”

As part of EMEC’s European Union and Scottish Government-funded Big Hit project, hydrogen heating boilers are being fitted in a school on the Orkney island of Shapinsay. Meanwhile, a car ferry is under construction which will run on hydrogen, and this year will see the installation of a hydrogen system into one of the ferries currently running between Shapinsay and Kirkwall.

Such technological development seems timely. In December last year, Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, announced it aimed to be carbon neutral by 2050 – currently it is looking at biofuels.

Clipsham is interested in how these hydrogen and renewables technologies might scale up or be adapted in different locations. “Can the learnings we got here be transitioned? Yes. Energy systems are becoming increasingly decentralised, so you’re breaking things down into smaller chunks, so you might see some of the knowledge we’ve gained on Orkney rolled out and used on a block of flats, or a housing estate or a leisure centre.”

There is a sense on the island right now that what they are doing is being watched. Steven Bews, a builder who grew up on Shapinsay where the Big Hit project is based, is, as chair of Shapinsay Development Trust, involved in his community turbine’s integration in the project. “We do feel a wee bit like the whole world is looking at us,” he says. “I keep seeing it on social media. Orkney and the Big Hit project is being highlighted and it’s good to see that the wider world is aware of us.”

For Bews, the idea that he is getting to be part of a greener future is as important as the local benefits. “There’s a feeling that you are being environmentally friendly in what you’re doing. You’re trying to lever the whole industry away from carbon and on to renewable green energy – and while it is in its infancy, I believe hydrogen has the potential to eventually replace a diesel and hydrocarbon-thirsty transport infrastructure.”

The awareness of climate change is strong on the islands. Almost everyone has some story to tell of its impact. Adele Lidderdale, hydrogen project officer at Orkney Islands Council, observes: “You see crop failure. We had flooding over the past 10 years that we didn’t previously see. We know the impact that the environment can have on day-to-day life.”

Lidderdale, whose great grandfather came from Orkney, grew up on the islands. Her husband grew up on Shapinsay, where one of the key hydrogen projects is based. “When you’re in such a small community you see the impact first hand. You have to answer to the community. I think that’s part of the unique mixture of why we’re able to get these things done. You know that you’re going to have to answer to the people who are going to be affected by any decisions you make.”

Part of the appeal of the Orkney hydrogen project is that it shows on a small, very human scale, how hydrogen could become part of the answer in a low-carbon future. Nigel Holmes, chief executive of the Scottish Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, sees great promise in what is happening on the islands.

“Orkney is almost like a microcosm of some of the things we are trying to tackle. We can show how we make the hydrogen from renewables, we can move it around, we can store it. We can show how it can be used in transport. We can show it can be used for making power, also for heating. The project helps people to appreciate the interconnected nature of some of these networks – because it’s all there in one place.”

Clipsham has watched the project develop and believes that one of the key things about the Orkney Islands is the people. “People are starting to ask, ‘Why is all this going on in the Orkney Islands? You’ve got 22,000 people, but they’ve now got a portfolio of about 45 million euros of hydrogen related projects happening.’ And that’s a very good question.

“But when you go to the Orkney Islands and you talk to some of them, you realise why. Because there is such a positive can-do attitude. If you give them a problem they will work out what they can do to find a solution. And if it isn’t obvious they’ll go out and look for it. There is an absolutely amazing attitude up there.”