2017 could be a pivotal year for the community-owned Gills Harbour in the Far North of Scotland, as it presses to be at the forefront of supporting the race to commercially harness “clean” power from the sea.

The volunteer directors of Gills Harbour, on the shores of the Pentland Firth’s Inner Sound, anticipate a key role in providing a secure workboat base for the UK’s newest energy industry.

That’s in the wake of the start-up in late 2016 and early 2017 of the world-leading tidal stream electricity project, just over one mile away. Typical new, modern, work-boats operating in the Firth are rectangular 24-metre “many-purpose” steel mini-ships, costing over £3 million each.

The installation of the first four “unseen” generating turbines on the 30-metre deep sea-bed of the Inner Sound —¬ and their successful electricity connection to the National Grid — has led to a belief that the commercial exploitation of the powerful natural forces of the Firth’s fast-moving waters is just around the corner.

Atlantis Resources Ltd’s Phase 1A of its MeyGen sub-sea site is the beginning of a major pollution-free 400MW underwater power station that the LSE “AIM-listed” corporation plans to complete within the next eight years.

The turbulent waters of the main Pentland Firth all lie within easy range of Gills Harbour and hold out the potential of providing Scotland — and the UK — with a renewable energy output equivalent to between two and three major new nuclear power plants. That is if the generating price can be made competitively right, as Atlantis RL’s CEO Mr Tim Cornelius insists is likely, in early 2017.

The 6 MW “demonstration” phase 1A has taken that vision a stage closer and brought worldwide attention to the Pentland Firth’s Inner Sound. It is where volunteer-led Gills Harbour operates the small port with big potential that could regenerate the local area, best known for John O’Groats, just three miles along the road.

Kinetic energy within the powerful tidal streams that dominate the firth, the windswept narrow channel between Caithness and the offshore Orkney Islands, was harnessed for the first time to generate electricity in November 2016.

This marks the real start of a long-term process — a small beginning, but one that should see strong growth from now to far into the future.

Atlantis Resources Ltd, the developers of its Inner Sound “demonstration array”, began to feed electricity into Scottish & Southern Energy’s local distribution network from 15th November. This is prior to a National Grid connection in 2020, when the new Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE) Gills Bay electricity sub-station opens.

Many view the development as a milestone for Gills Harbour Ltd (GHL) which operates the small port at the (landward) head of Gills Bay, just four miles west of John O’Groats, at the “top” of Scotland.

Gills Harbour lies less than 1.5 miles from where the debut tidal turbine started spinning. It belongs to around 600 electors living in scattered crofting-origin (i.e. “peasant-style” agriculture) settlements strung along the Pentland Firth shore of Canisbay Parish, from West Mey to John O’Groats, inclusive. The civil parish constitutes around half of the smallest local government unit, the Dunnet & Canisbay Community Council, in Scotland’s Highland region.

“Gills Harbour’s operators aim to provide a unique cost-saving service to tidal-stream electricity developers, whilst also enhancing human safety and productivity.”

GHL owns the low-lying land and foreshore (around 7 acres) in between the East and West Burns of Gills (which debouch at either side of the harbour), down (northwards) to the low-water (LWOST) mark from the foot of low cliffs. The latter forms the company’s southern land boundary. It is run by unremunerated local directors with office-bearers elected from their ranks at an annual general meeting each spring.

The community company leases part of its property for roll-on/roll-off goods and passenger ferry services.

This lease is “assigned” to successful family-owned firm Pentland Ferries Ltd (PFL), that has spent many millions of pounds on building its comprehensive, modern, land and sea terminals there and on adjacent seabed that PFL rents from the Crown Estate.

GHL retains the direct operational interest in the little port’s Inner Basin.

That is where the real opportunity exists for year-round 24/7 safe berthing for workboats needed in the harnessing of the fast-flowing tidal streams for generating electricity. The reason is that the Inner Basin can be suitably, and affordably, “enclosed” — i.e. it is not a “finger pier” pointing seawards, that thus will always be exposed to some wave-motion from the firth’s open waters.

Rather, it is a location where secure berthing for 24-metre class vessels, typically drawing just over 2 metres of water, can be safely moored with a modicum of low-cost upgrading.

As in every other small rural locality in the world, its residents yearn to participate — gain employment or and give something towards — the successful exploitation over the coming decades of a major international-class natural resource, here on its sea-girt “front doorstep”.

Few, if any, living locally doubt that 21st century technology has allowed the tidal streams to become world-class fuel reserves. Active participation in their exploitation holds a key to stabilising and then reversing the population decline that this “remote” area has sadly witnessed for more than a century.

“The Pentland Firth’s tidal streams are a key natural resource for NE Caithness.”

This prolonged, almost imperceptible, downward trend was highlighted in the independently-compiled consultants’ “Socio-Economic Report” on Dunnet and Canisbay, published in late 2015, following widespread dialogue locally.

The commissioning of the study, that involved several open to the public gatherings and evidence-taking sessions from many local voluntary bodies, was the brainchild of the late John Green, of John O’Groats.

Mr Green (1944-2016) was a long-term NE Caithness councillor and former Secretary/Treasurer of Gills Harbour Ltd., here acting in his role as D&C Community Council chairman.

The study was specifically commissioned to provide policy guidance to official bodies, including (but not restricted to) The Highland Council and local jobs agency Highlands & Islands Enterprise. It was the first use of modest community income from a renewables development (Greencoat Stroupster Wind-farm) in Canisbay, NE Caithness.

Many local residents (and “natives” living away from home) are highly-qualified in the energy field, with skills that should be transferable for future employment as “tidal stream technicians” whilst others have sea-going capabilities (and appropriate “tickets”) in the small boats crewing field.

The worldwide price slump in the oil & gas industry has meant redundancy for some offshore oilmen, many with international experience. One “industrial” electrician, temporarily unemployed locally, is a GHL director.

And there’s always likely to be space for young incomers, who want to participate as the exciting Pentland Firth tidal stream dream becomes reality over the coming decades.

Gills Harbour Ltd’s operators want to provide a unique service to tidal-stream electricity developers that will lead to significant cost-reductions plus positives for human safety in this nascent field. It expects to seek partner(s) to ensure that this occurs.

Cost-cutting, without compromising safety but enhancing it, is now seen by all parties as the proper way forward, so that sustainable long-term tidal power-stations become a key industry in the UK’s “top corner”, over 270 miles North of Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city.

This will allow an enduring, sustainable, Pentland Firth tidal-stream electricity industry to evolve on its shores, with innovations proven there spreading around the world from Scotland’s most northerly corner.

In early March, 2017, Mr Andrew Banks announced that Pentland Ferries Ltd had ordered a brand-new 85 metre catamaran ROPAX ferry, from Strategic Marine pty, of near Perth, Western Australia.

‘With a capacity of 98 cars and 430 passengers the £14 million new ship should enter service in 2018 Spring/early summer on the ancient, short-sea route from Gills Bay to St. Margaret’s Hope, Orkney. The new vessel will be constructed at SM’s steel-build ship-yard in Vietnam and will replace the present 2008-built Pentalina. Mr Banks stated that his company, also the main RO:RO trans-Pentland freight carrier, had placed the order to ‘cater for increased traffic demand’.

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