ROBERT LESLIE looks back at how electricity developed in Orkney and wonders, after almost a century, if we have now come full circle to a point where local ownership could secure a brighter future for the islands
As a 14-year-old pupil at Kirkwall Grammar School, I carried out my history project under the guidance of the late Mr John ‘Jake’ Heddle. My topic was ‘The Development of Electricity in Orkney’.
Among other developments, I related how, after a false start in 1910, Kirkwall Town Council eventually bit the bullet in 1921 and set about buying the electrical plant at the Houton Air Base for the purpose of ‘introducing Electric Light into the Burgh’. The Kirkwall and Municipal Electricity Power Station, now relocated to Junction Road, was officially opened 98 years ago, on Monday, February 18, 1924. The acquisition 22 years later of what was known as the Kirkwall Electricity Undertaking by the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board seemed an age ago to the 14-year-old project writer, having taken place on May 15, 1946. Looking back, I realise that the early 1980s were actually just a short hop, step and jump away from that post-war transaction.
It got me thinking that the switch from local control of electricity to the larger Hydro Board was merely one stage in the development of electricity in the Highlands and Islands. A related event mentioned in my project was a meeting in Kirkwall on May 9, 1946, just ahead of the merger. At it, Tom Johnston – the former Secretary of State for Scotland and by then chairman of the Hydro Board – told everyone who attended that no one would pay more when the Board took over. He added: “The Board’s rural distribution scheme will make electricity available to some 6500 inhabitants in the rural area and the benefits of electricity to farmers can scarcely be exaggerated; it can be used for milking, threshing and in many other ways.”
“Employment, steady employment, from now on,” was another promise from Mr Johnston. However, perhaps his most crucial statement was that: “We are providing amenities for hundreds of thousands of householders who cannot at present enjoy any amenity – real amenities. By amenities, I mean absence of toil, relief in labour. That is what we will provide. We will give opportunity for the construction industries, small industries, perhaps large industries, but I venture to prophecy this, those of us who are living this day five years hence, given a fair field for the Hydro-Electric Board effort, will see a complete revolution in the outlook and possibilities of life and prosperity in our Highland counties.”
In setting up the North of Scotland Hydro-Electricity Board in 1943, Tom Johnston – still Secretary of State for Scotland at this stage – had to fight government ministers at Westminster who argued that the hydro-electric power from Scotland’s glens should as a priority be channelled as a cheap energy source into industry. Instead he told them that his first loyalty was to the people of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. He enshrined this in the Hydro-Electric Development (Scotland) Act, 1943, ensuring that ordinary consumers would have priority, then the anticipated large power users, and any surplus energy would be sold to the national grid. Profits from these sales would help reduce distribution costs to more remote areas, and assist in carrying out ‘measures for the economic development and social improvement of the north of Scotland district’. This famous social clause gave recognition that the Hydro Board was envisaged as an instrument for the rehabilitation of the Highlands and Islands, not just an organisation to provide electricity. In Orkney this meant that from 1947 through to 1983, the Mainland parishes and then the islands were connected to the mains, bringing the benefits of electricity to even the most remote of Orkney’s residents.
The connection dates, chronologically, were:
- 1947: Kirkwall and St Ola, Stenness, Stromness.
- 1948: Harray, Firth
- 1949: St Andrews, Holm, Rendall, Evie, Birsay
- 1951: Sandwick
- 1952: Orphir
- 1953: Deerness
- 1954: Burray, South Ronaldsay
- 1966: Rousay, Shapinsay
- 1971: Wyre
- 1973: Sanday, Stronsay
- 1976: Flotta
- 1977: South Walls, North Walls, North Hoy
- 1978: Graemsay
- 1979: Rackwick
- 1980: Eday, Westray, Papa Westray
- 1981: Egilsay
- 1983: North Ronaldsay
By the time the six-mile cable to North Ronaldsay came, in November 1983, the last link in the Orkney electricity grid, bringing the total length of cable around the islands to 174 miles, we already had the first submarine cable across the Pentland Firth. The power was switched on through that 27-mile long cable, laid in a scheme that cost £8 million, on October 12, 1982.
Early indications of how electricity generation could change in the future had also been seen in the county in the 1980s, with wind turbines coming to Burgar Hill in Evie on a scale never seen before in the UK. The last chapter of my project was devoted to wind power, and erection of the Wind Energy Group’s 250kW, 20m diameter wind turbine was the final such development covered, being switched on by the Earl of Avon, Under Secretary of State for Energy, on September 23, 1983. It was, of course, the forerunner to the 3MW turbine, with its 60m diameter blades, which was inaugurated in 1987 and at that time was the largest wind turbine ever built in the UK.
The Hydro Board existed for another six years after I handed my project in to Mr Heddle in March 1984 (he called it ‘solid…interesting and informative’ and gave me an ‘A’). North of Scotland Electricity plc was formed in 1989 to acquire the assets the Board ahead of privatisation. The name was later changed to Scottish Hydro-Electric plc. The board was dissolved in March 1990 and privatised in June 1991. Another name change to Scottish and Southern Energy plc (SSE) was made in December 1998 after the merger with Southern Electric plc. The brand name Scottish Hydro-Electric continued to be used for the company’s Scottish retail business until that arm of the company was sold to OVO Electricity Ltd in 2020, when it became a trading name of that company.
Is it time to consider local ownership of the electricity grid ?
So, in the 98 years since we have had an electricity supply in Kirkwall, we’ve had several changes in the organisations distributing electricity in Orkney. What is to stop us having another? After all, we are only a short hop, step and jump away from that 1991 privatisation.
The rapid expansion of onshore wind generation across Orkney, together with the European Marine Energy Centre becoming a world leader in wave and tidal technology, pushed the need for grid enhancement to the top of the agenda around a decade ago.
During 2012-13 I sat in Orkney Grid Steering Committee (OGSC) meetings along with SSE and others investigating ways of reducing constraints in an Orkney grid that has already been enhanced from the point that 26MW of generating capacity was the limit to having almost 80MW of generating capacity connected. The conclusion, as stated at the time by OGSC chairman James Stockan, now our council leader, was that as things stood with how our energy system is regulated, there was simply no more to be squeezed from our grid as it existed.
Innovative projects over the past decade or so have had varying degrees of success in finding ways to use otherwise constrained renewable generation, with hydro-related projects and a variety of heating and storage projects run in communities across the islands.
However, Orkney has been at or near to the top of the fuel poverty league table for too long, and the fact that we generate far more green electricity than we can consume and yet the majority of Orkney folk see no benefit from this is frustrating to say the least. Having innovative development aimed at lowering costs to consumers thwarted by outdated UK energy regulation, and at the same time paying some of the highest rates in the UK to consume the electricity generated on our doorstep is a massive inequity.
Perhaps we have come full circle, and it is time to consider local ownership of the electricity grid, so that the main consideration when looking at the future development is the long-term benefit for the whole community, rather than short-term shareholder dividends.
Now – as we continue to wait for a new interconnector to provide more export capacity, and as skyrocketing electricity costs cause real economic and social harm to the people of Orkney rather than creating prosperity – seems as good a time as any to reinvigorate the spirit of Tom Johnston.
In the face of a UK Tory Government that has so far provided little more than token support for electricity customers ahead of a projected 77% energy price cap rise on 1st October, is it time to seek a way of controlling the generation, distribution and supply of our electricity for the benefit of all?
It might allow a future 14-year-old history pupil to write a project about Orkney’s second electricity revolution and the wealth it brought to the islands, rather than how lack of vision on grid reinforcement put growing pressures on island residents, drove away investors and strangled our fledgling marine renewable industry at birth.
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