Power from the fast-flowing Pentland Firth sea-currents is the realisation of a century-old vision.
Playwright/philosopher George Bernard Shaw touted the harnessing of its tidal streams as a free fuel source for electricity generation, back in 1908. He saw it is a future alternative to having tens of thousands of coal miners risking their health and lives howking the fuel from narrow seams in the damp, hot “bowels of the earth”.
Nobel laureate and Hollywood Oscar winner George Bernard Shaw was the first public proponent of Pentland firth electricity
Shaw’s Fabian Society paper was published decades before a reliable method of doing so had been devised.
First observing the power of the tidal streams from the deck of the ferry St Ola while en-route to Scapa Pier at Kirkwall for Orkney trout-angling holidays, the (later) Nobel laureate and Hollywood Oscar winner returned to the Pentland Firth tidal energy topic several times thereafter.
Notably, “Pygmalion” author Shaw — who won an Oscar in 1939 when his play was first adapted as a film and which was later turned into the hit movie “My Fair Lady” — did so in a letter to The Times (of London) in early 1947 during the 20th century’s most prolonged freezing spell. Deep snowdrifts and frozen rail-track points threatened to cause power-cuts widely over the UK by interrupting coal supplies from the collieries to the power stations.
At that time, almost all UK electricity was generated by burning coal — the main Scottish hydro-electric stations did not come on stream until the 1950s/early 1960s.
This was at a time when nuclear power-stations were still a dream in physicists’ eyes and two decades before natural gas was discovered in the southern North Sea.
In 1967, local Caithness County councillor, the late Mr Malcolm Green, a retired City of London police officer working as a crofter-fisherman from John O’Groats, called for a county engineer’s report on the subject from the local authority, one that correctly pointed out that such a project was not then feasible.
Interest was later stimulated by an extensive 1993 “desk-top” study report by the Energy Technology Support Unit (ETSU) at Harwell, Oxon., that pointed to the Pentland Firth — a total of six sites named — and the Alderney Race (off the Channel Islands) as providing the best tidal stream electricity potential in the British Isles.
ETSU was a spin-off from the UK Atomic Energy Authority and, amongst other things, provided energy research tasks for (otherwise) redundant nuclear engineers. There was some input from UKAEA Dounreay former staff, who claimed some local background knowledge.
ETSU’s report also used early work by Peter Fraenkel, an engineer who has been a UK-based proponent of tidal stream energy for several decades and has since won a “lifetime’s achievement” award at the annual November London International Tidal Summit.
Further clarification work on the subject did not emerge till the early 2000s, notably by consultants Black & Veatch but, at that time, “wave-energy converters” were thought likely to provide a better marine generating bet than “tidal stream”.
This proved very far from being the case, as was to emerge.