“Cities are precarious creatures. They are unable to live or breathe without a myriad of lifelines from the surrounding world to feed them, heat them, and take their waste away. Edges can survive without cities (Orkney does every time the lifeline ferry [from the Scottish mainland] stops). But cities cannot survive without their edges; there is a reason why post-apocalyptic stories feature people fleeing the broken infrastructures of the city, heading for the resilient edge.”
Laura Watts, Energy at the End of the World: an Orkney Islands Saga, p. 33
Recently, energy writers and scholars have tried to humanize energy, to underscore that energy is at the heart of everything we do, say, and vote for. Yet this ambitious task of merging social science and the humanities often falls short. Richard Rhodes’ celebrated Energy: A Human History, for instance, was criticized for lacking a coherent narrative, despite the hundreds of human-centered anecdotes and facts he marshals.
It is at the local level, however, and with an ethnographic approach that we can best merge the human with energy. For this reason, Laura Watts’ Energy at the End of the World: An Orkney Islands Saga (MIT Press, 2018) is an excellent, and beautiful, book. Her work is the product of nearly a decade of research and thinking about the energy challenges – and successes – of the people living in a group of islands off the northern coast of Scotland, the Orkneys.
I became more human in my relationship to energy and even Europe. The Orkneys initially reminded me of the U.S. state of Maine, where I visited nearly a dozen times growing up. But I quickly realized this is off base. For one, the Orkneys are islands and require levels of self-sufficiency that Mainers, who mostly live on land, cannot imagine. Secondly, the winds, waves, and tides on the Orkneys are on another level. The wind is so strong that teachers sometimes restrict small children from playing outside, lest they be blown away. Yet the wind also provides the islands with more onshore and offshore wind, wave, and tidal-generated power than residents can consume.
It is into this “world of energy futures and their developing infrastructures” (p. 17) that Watts takes us. Labeling her account a saga may sound immodest, but it captures her role as part-ethnographer and part-imaginer of the future: “I must write a world, not just take the existing world apart” (p. 15). Watts is a lecturer in energy and society at the University of Edinburgh, and her academic approach, “all whilst scribbling in my ethnographic notebook” (p. 18), brings rigor to a story that affects us all in profound, if not directly clear, ways.
A living laboratory
Energy at the End of the World is divided into three parts. The first, “Making Orkney Electrons,” helps situate the reader into the islands’ energy challenge. The Orkneys generate roughly 120 percent of their energy demand with renewables, but only two 20-megawatt (MW) lines, one for export and one for import, connect this power to mainland Scotland (p. 27-8). The excess power simply goes to waste. Augmenting exports could obviously curb fuel poverty on the island, from which 63 percent of households were estimated to suffer in 2014. Transmission costs from Scotland are exorbitant, as are petrol costs, despite the Orkneys and Scotland being rich in resources. The island’s wind turbines often stand unused because Orcadians cannot afford to buy this power from the private company on the mainland (p. 53-5).
There are some solutions, the most immediate being somewhat counter-intuitive: Orcadians needs to consume more power. If they do so, the company will send more to the island and decrease cost. The best way to do this is electric vehicles (EVs), and the islands have been well ahead of the curve. The first EV arrived in 2005 for testing, and Mitsubishi sent the first commercial fleet in 2011. The Orkneys are ideal for EVs because cars only need to go relatively short distances that fall within range of current battery technologies (pp. 87-95). Battery storage and hydrogen solutions are also being considered. For this reason, many refer to the Orkneys as a ‘living laboratory’ for shifting from oil to renewables.
The second part, “Making Energy Futures,” takes us on the long journey to today, the longue durée of French historian Fernand Braudel (p. 143). The islands, we learn, are a paragon of energy history and archaeology – inhabitants have innovated technology and built monumental structures for six thousand years. The latest innovative thrust is renewable energy; the island’s powerful winds, waves, and tides have already radically improved residents’ future.
Of course, there have been problems. The Burray wind turbine, constructed in 2005 by a group of individuals looking to generate power and profit, was technically the first ‘community’ wind turbine on the Orkneys. But determining how the profits from such turbines should be spent proved problematic. Communities, Watts demonstrates, are never monolithic and homogenous; building them around energy technologies requires “care work into their long future” (p. 177).
Creating energy on the Orkneys requires collaboration, something that comes naturally to residents, as well as time and silence (pp. 200-9). The “commitment to the common ground” is more unifying than in most other prosperous geographies such as cities, where the lack of real energy challenges, i.e. shortages and intermittency, prompts us to divide pettier lines. The energy journey, in other words, is never an easy one, but at least the Orkneys have the cooperative spirit.
Under the sea
The Orkneys’ most unique contribution to energy lies underneath its coastlines. In 2008, Pentland Firth became the world’s first area for large-scale, commercial marine (wave and tidal) energy development. The Minister of Scotland said it had the “potential to become the Saudi Arabia of marine power” (p. 251). Yet as a new technology, it presented new obstacles: low tide is not a long period, making repairs more difficult to make; the sea is full of grit that gunks up the machines and makes it difficult to observe them; and waves move differently and more dynamically and unpredictably than winds or river currents, making harnessing them more challenging (pp. 270-2).
Photo: Tidal Energy Generator, Eday, European Marine Energy Centre; Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Commercializing the sea is a new step for humankind, and predictably full of pitfalls. Watts describe how the developers of Pentland Firth, Crown Estate Scotland, did not appreciate the complexities of the undersea environment or account for Orcadians belief in Norse udal law, which is more of a sensibility about being “the custodians of the natural and the monuments,” and predates the Crown feudal law (pp. 280-7). The sea, in other words, is more than a commodity.
These are valid concerns, but I found this discussion oversensitive and contradictory. Things need to happen at some point, and failure is part of experience. Later, Watts argues that one problem is the lack of international standards because the industry isn’t streamlined. There are thirty or so small companies working in the Orkneys. But consolidation would surely bring further commercialization and privatization. In general, the last third of the book, “Making Marine Energy” could have been pruned and more sanguine.
Yet this is ethnography. The people are the voice, and it is not the author’s authority to alter it, or mine to judge. She starts the book, moreover, by describing a 2008 meeting between a Silicon Valley scout and local environmental consultant, eager to create a narrative for a clean energy future. This reminds the reader how much time we have lost in the last eleven years, ignoring our edges, and our past. The gloom is warranted.
Yet Watts is not gloomy about the future – “the Orkney electron tells me the end is not nigh” (p. 123). This spirit is reflected in her style, which is both Homeric – she situates characters within sharp colors amidst untamable natural forces – and disorienting – we are never sure where she is headed next. From the first sentence, she transports you to a different world, where you must where a hat and gloves in the summer. The epilogue is also a fitting exit: “the mist has encompassed the ferry, and I no longer know where I am” (p. 379).
Watts’ account, lastly, is, self-admittedly, “a more feminist attention to electric and literal power” (p. 66). Orcadians live with energy obstacles. Energy is cut, sold, and scarce; it does not conform to the ideal of “frictionless capitalism” (p. 77, 174). For two hundred years, we have taken energy for granted. It has bestowed more wealth than we could have ever imagined. It’s safe to assume that the future will require even greater care.
Energy at the End of the World appeals to all audiences. It stands alone as a travelogue, even if the reader has little interest in energy. It also serves as a useful introduction to the history of renewable energy and today’s challenges. Energy geeks, of course, will also learn something new, and enjoy a beautiful, lyrical story along the way. Most of us will never visit the Orkneys or other such places on our peripheries. I am glad I got to do so through Watts’ eyes and wholeheartedly encourage others to do so as well.
Photo: Rough Seas at Yesnaby; Credit: Wikimedia Commons.