\"Come and see for yourselves!\" Utsira chief councillor Robin Kirkhus\' challenge to sceptics of wind and hydrogen power is clear. As the turbines on the windswept Norwegian island start to turn, his enthusiasm is insatiable. Hydros test-lab for the hydrogen society of the future is now a reality, and according to Kirkhus, it\'s already a triumph. But it all started with a chance meeting.
With its rocky shores and windswept location off the coast of Norway, the island of Utsira might seem an unlikely place for the dawn of an energy revolution. But this summer it will be making energy history as the first hydrogen society: ten households will receive autonomous renewable electricity, produced only using wind power and hydrogen. It’s a test bed for technology that could become a mainstay of renewable environmentally-friendly electricity supplies worldwide – and now the project has reached the production phase. But the exciting story of Utsira begins with a series of chance occurrences.
Like many Norwegians, head of Norsk Hydro Electrolysers Christopher “Toffen” Kloed and his companion are fond of hiking in the Norwegian forests. On one occasion, however, the challenges were proving too great: thick, damp fog came rolling in, completely surrounding their mountain lodge near Kongsberg. It was clear that their planned hike to Vestvidda would have to wait; as he grasped for his map book that had fallen to the floor, they contemplated alternatives. By chance, the book had fallen open at the pages for Utsira – a windswept island on Norway’s craggy west coast. Since neither Kloed nor his companion had ever visited the island, they decided to head west.
On Utsira they followed the hiking trails around the heart-shaped island, ending up at the lighthouse overlooking the cluster of wooden houses below. Their arrival aroused the curiosity of the man scything the grass around the lighthouse, and they exchanged greetings. The man with the scythe was none other than chief councillor Robin Kirkhus, at the time living in the lighthouse itself. The visitors’ background triggered his interest; sensing an opportunity, he invited them inside for a drink.
Hydro\'s Christopher Kloed: likes grasping an opportunity when he sees one
In a meeting reminiscent of the chance encounter of Hydro’s founders Birkeland and Eyde a hundred years earlier, Kirkhus and Kloed enthused about renewable energy, wind power – and hydrogen. Utsira was already an island community with a vision – interested in green technology and actively searching for projects involving biodynamic food, ecological farming, solar power – and windmills. But hydrogen hadn’t been on the agenda until Kloed mentioned it to Kirkhus. He said Hydro was looking for a prime site for an energy self-sufficiency project involving wind power and hydrogen.
“We should get together!” exclaimed Kirkhus, and Kloed agreed. The beginnings of the Utsira story were born, and although the road to project start was long and complex, that initial meeting was decisive. Christopher Kloed is philosophical: “It’s a story that shows that it’s not just planning, but chance events and the ability to exploit them well, that lead to success,” he says.
Utsira\'s Chief Councillor: \"Using hydrogen as an energy carrier is a model that can work anywhere, even in cities and urban environments\" says Robin Kirkhus (Photo: Tor Hammerstad)
It has culminated in the world’s first full-scale combined wind power and hydrogen plant, and a landmark in the development of renewable energy systems based on hydrogen. This isolated community of just 240 people is the testing ground for some of the most exciting developments being made by Hydro and our partners – a future independent of fossil fuels.
The prevailing weather conditions at Utsira make it a natural choice for wind power generation, and the wind turbines here will generate a significant surplus of power in optimal conditions. But like all renewable energy sources, the electricity supply is periodical – wind turbines stand still when there is not enough wind, or when there is too much.
This fundamental problem is avoided by storing surplus electricity as chemical energy – in the form of hydrogen. When the wind blows, electrolysers produce hydrogen for storage – and when it doesn’t (or indeed, when it blows too strongly), a hydrogen generator and a fuel cell convert the stored hydrogen back into electricity – supplying a constant power source for ten households based entirely on renewable energy, and fully independent of other power supplies – so-called autonomous power. What’s more, surplus power from the system can be sold.
WIND POWER IN A DEAD CALM: hydrogen stored in pressurized tanks ensures two days\' electricity supply if there is no breeze
Although the project was originally conceived to show how island communities could be energy self-sufficient, Robin Kirkhus feels that it’s a concept with far wider significance. “Using hydrogen as an energy carrier is a model that can work anywhere, even in cities and urban environments.” He would like to see electric cars and buses on the island, although plans for a hydrogen-powered ferry had to be shelved because safety issues have yet to be resolved.
It may be a world first – but getting the full support of the community was vital for Hydro – and for the island’s administration. “Kloed inspired confidence in me from day one,” says Kirkhus. “He was direct and to the point and helped explain the criteria that Hydro was looking for – location, conditions on the island, local initiative, and a community that would support the project,” he says.
Robin Kirkhus also gives much of the credit for Utsira’s support for the project to former mayor, Reidar Klovning, who achieved a “mental turning point” on the island, promoting the idea and winning the islanders’ enthusiasm for the project at public meetings. After their initial curiosity was satisfied, support for the project has been unanimous, says Kirkhus.
Modest about his own role in the project, Kirkhus is keen to bestow honour on others: from the island’s then technical services manager, Nils Krogh, who visited the Hebrides and played a key role in the project management, to the mayor, the administration, and the suppliers and contractors who built the plant, especially Enercon, who supplied the turbines.
Of the chance meeting between himself and Kloed, he says: “You have to be prepared to listen to new opportunities. Being open and alert to new ideas is crucial in the public sector; you have to have a common creative understanding of things – create an innovative climate,” he says.
“Being open and alert to new ideas is crucial – you need an innovative climate”
Robin Kirkus, Chief Councillor, Utsira
Innovation is also something he associates with Hydro. “They’re technically highly competent, they’re enthusiastic, and have clear goals. I have only good things to say about Hydro,” he says. “It’s been inspiring working with such professional people.” He says that instead of inviting community representatives to lavish lunches as other companies have done, Hydro sent a delegation to the island to see if they were able to tackle such a project. “Kloed and his colleagues have worked extremely hard to achieve this,” he says.
HOPING FOR A PERMANENT SOLUTION: \"Now we\'re second only to the Azores in production efficiency\" says Robin Kirkhus (Photo: Tor Hammerstad)
In its first period of operation, the Utsira plant has already achieved an impressive second place in the efficiency ranking of European windmills, with production 97 per cent of the time. “We had a target of being in the top five at the start of the project,” says Kirkhus. “Now we’re beaten only by the Azores, and they’re right in the middle of the Passat winds.” Now he’s hoping the project will become a permanent energy solution for the island.
Although gross investments were large, he points out that net costs are much lower. “You have to take into consideration the earnings from the sale of surplus power” he says, adding that the introduction of green certificates in Norway would make the project even more profitable. “We’re enormously grateful to Hydro for choosing Utsira – and cooperation between Hydro and Utsira has been excellent” he says.
To any wind power sceptics he has the following invitation. “Come and see for yourselves!” Norwegian contractors have shown how environmentally-friendlily everything can be done, he says. “Look how beautifully everything has been built – from the design, colour and placement of the turbines, to the way the terrain has been landscaped afterwards. People and organisations that oppose windmills should come and see this project in real life,” says an enthusiastic chief councillor Robin Kirkhus.
Hydro\'s President and CEO Eivind Reiten will formally open the Utsira wind facility on Thursday July 1st.