The Electric Nemesis: Making energy futures without hubris

Laura Watts

The Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland, are leading the creation of a new global renewable energy industry. The European Marine Energy Centre, the world’s first grid-connected test site for wave and tide energy, has been up and running for ten years. The islands are also the site for the world’s first commercial scale marine energy farms, expected to generate over 1 GW.

Yet, Orkney and its twenty thousand islanders are often considered peripheral to high-tech futures–at the edge of centralised politics, at the edge of infrastructure networks. The national electricity grid remains centralised and fossilised, designed for urban power stations, not island wind and wave power. The single national grid cable from Orkney to mainland Scotland is overheating, literally, due to the islanders often generating over 100% of their energy needs from renewable energy. Islander energy futures and the international marine energy industry could be throttled to a near standstill. But the self-determined islanders do not hope in blind faith for distant government policy shifts. Instead, they have transformed themselves into a living energy future: Marine energy is being turned into hydrogen fuel; there is an electric car network; a well-established smart grid. This paper, drawing on eight years ethnographic fieldwork with people and places in Orkney, responds to recent turns to hope (e.g. Isabelle Stengers and Hirokazu Miyazaki). It tells the saga of how an archipelago at the edge is making an energy future, not with hope, nor in hopelessness, but in defiance.