A PIONEERING tidal energy project in Shetland backed by £2 million from the Scottish government has run into troubled waters.
A 30 kilowatt machine installed by Edinburgh-based Nova Innovation off the island of Yell last year was dubbed “the world’s first community-owned tidal turbine”.
However the North Yell Development Company (NYDC), on whose behalf the trial turbine was built and installed, has turned its back on the project after a series of apparent failures.
Community leaders say the company refused to divulge how much energy the turbine produced, while some businesses employed by the firm say they have been poorly treated and underpaid.
Nova has now taken back ownership of the machine after NYDC asked for it to be decommissioned.
Despite these difficulties, Nova are in the process of installing the first of five larger turbines off the coast of Yell in the fast flowing, but turbulent tidal stream of Bluemull Sound, between the islands of Yell and Unst.
The company has raised £3.75 million for its Shetland Tidal Array (STA), with £1.9 million coming through the Scottish government via Scottish Enterprise and the Renewable Energy Investment Fund.
Further private investment has come from the Belgian renewable energy firm ELSA SA, with whom Nova formed a new company Shetland Green Electricity Ltd for the project.
The STA will see five of the new Nova 100 turbines being submerged in the Sound with the aim of generating 0.5MW for the Shetland grid.
However there are indications that the latest project has started to hit snags before it has entered the water, after the first Nova 100 machine experienced buoyancy problems.
NYDC held a public meeting in Yell last month to explain to the local community what was happening with the tidal project, which they had hoped would generate a healthy income for the island’s fragile economy.
NYDC secretary Andrew Nisbet said: “The machine has been decommissioned and it is now Nova’s responsibility to remove it from the seabed.”
Nisbet said the reason for wanting out of the experiment was that the machine Nova eventually installed was bigger than they had initially expected and would therefore cost more than anticipated to maintain or repair.
Meanwhile sources within the Shetland community have voiced extreme frustration with the company.
They say that relations between Nova and the NYDC became so difficult that Highlands and Islands Enterprise sent in an arbitrator to settle their differences.
Nova, it is claimed, refused to divulge how much electricity the Nova 30 was producing, even though NYDC actually owned the machine thanks to a £150,000 Community Energy Scotland grant, which was backed by £13,000 from Shetland Islands Council and £1,200 from NYDC itself.
As a result of the negotiations, Nova have taken back ownership of the machine they built, along with responsibility for retrieving it from the seabed.
The statement added: “Overall, the engineering achievements have been world leading and the learning invaluable.
“The project has laid the foundations for Shetland’s role in an integrated marine energy supply chain that is developing in Scotland.”
However the company’s claim on their website that the machine has been “powering an icehouse situated on Cullivoe pier” appears to be false, as the connection was switched off several months ago.
One source said the tidal turbine was draining more electricity than it was producing and therefore it was costing the icehouse to be connected to it.
At least two Shetland firms who helped Nova install the 30kw device have said they want nothing to do with them again.
One company, Thule Charters, who were involved in survey work said they lost a £30,000 submarine as a result of working with Nova and have been left unpaid for a day and a half’s work.
Stuart Isbister, from Thule Charters, said Nova were “completely disorganised”, and said they would “certainly not work for them again”.
“They lived aboard my boat for three days and two nights in Bluemull Sound. I worked through the night to get things sorted for them,” he complained.
Yell councillor and former NYDC chairman Robert Henderson said there was a lot of concern in the community about Nova.
“The gripe here is they were using the community to trial their machine, but they were not prepared to pass on the information to the community concerning the machine,” he said.
Other local people have voiced disappointment after expectations were raised, not least by the Scottish government.
Energy minister Fergus Ewing trumpeted the Nova venture at last year’s All Energy Conference in Aberdeen, proclaiming: “For the first time, anywhere in the world, a community owned tidal turbine is generating electricity. It will have a positive impact on the North Yell community and economy.”
A year later one Yell resident, who asked not to be named, said that while a lot of local businesses had earned good money from the project, the experience had “left a bad taste in people’s mouths”.