It seems almost every week now that the latest courtesy email drops in my inbox informing me of another political visitor to Orkney. We have had ministers from Edinburgh and London, parliamentary delegations and individual MPs. They cannot all be here for the bracing weather and the beaches. Why all the hullaballoo?

In point of fact, it does not take any great imagination to see what has drawn so many public figures to the isles. COP26 is rapidly approaching and focusing all political minds upon climate issues and green projects. The European Marine Energy Centre has become a shining light for green innovation in our country, and everyone and their cat wants to bask in the reflected success.

Now is the time, therefore, for all parties to pay for their photo ops with political support for tidal stream rollout – starting at the top.

Today – and at almost every opportunity I have had for months – I pressed ministers in Parliament to look at the fiscal support they can put in place to allow the transition from successful technical demonstration to mainstream commercial rollout. Not for the first time, I heard positive words from those on the government benches – but time is ticking and the much-awaited tidal stream funding pot has yet to materialise.

I have no problem (really!) with anyone of any party making the pilgrimage to EMEC or any of the other successful green energy projects – for there are many – in the Northern Isles. The frustrating reality, however, is that such visits only tend to come once the success is already easy to see. When there is a need for future action and investment, MPs and ministers are less ready to put their money where their mouth is.

Putting fiscal support behind these proven technologies should be a no-brainer. Tidal stream energy is at the cutting edge of renewable power. It is both more sustainable than fossil fuels and more reliable than existing wind power. Short of the Moon falling out of the sky, there are few things more reliable in our world than the tides coming in and going out.

There appears, however, to be a perpetual hesitancy amongst those with their hand on the fiscal levers to back marine renewables to the degree required. At first glance, it is easy to see why. Existing power sources are superficially cheaper, because they are already fully optimised for scale and easy to deploy. Why spend more when you could spend less?

Such a view is, of course, short-sighted. The transition from proof-of-concept to market-ready deployment is always one in which initial costs will be higher, as supply chains are developed and technical barriers are broken down. Once we get past that hump, costs are likely to drop rapidly – but we can only get past it at pace with government backing. Short term cost – for long term benefits.

We have built a real and notable lead in the global development of tidal stream power, but that lead is already under threat. Other countries can grasp the potential of marine renewables, and if we do not seize the opportunity in front of us, they will. We have to lead now, or we shall find ourselves buying abroad later what we could have produced here.

These are the green technologies of the future. If we can lead in their development and deployment then we can reap the benefits in the years to come. As COP26 hoves into view, it is time for the government to move from positive words to positive action.


Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland