Wind, Water and Sheep:
Why the Faroe Islands may hold the answer to our energy future
On the edge of a hill, above a quiet two-lane road sprinkled with wandering sheep, sits HiddenFjord fish farm. The group of small warehouses overlooks a pristine inlet, bordered by hills streaming with waterfalls. Large, puffy clouds roll overhead.
At the site, workers clad in blue jumpsuits return from lunch. A few trudge to the edge of the hill, where piles of wood and large orange tubes lie scattered in the foundation of a new warehouse. About 25 yards away, on the opposite end of the farm, a young worker heads into a warehouse that holds three water-filled cement tanks, each about 15 feet in diameter. Inside, under the florescent lights, it’s quiet, save for the muffled hum of the engines constantly pumping oxygen into the water. The millions of fish that pass through these tanks each year, swimming and eating at all hours, leave the air with a distinctly earth-like smell.
Fish-farming companies such as HiddenFjord are the lifeblood of the Faroe Islands, a small country that sits quietly between Iceland, Scotland and Norway. In a given year, fish may make up to 96 percent of the country’s export. Fine restaurants in the United States, China, the United Kingdom and Russia serve Faroese salmon.
But the fishing industry in the Faroe Islands faces a serious threat. In just 30 minutes, that threat could set back business by about $20 million, killing off the millions of salmon on site. It’s a threat exacerbated by brutal Faroese weather and the islands’ isolation from mainland Europe.
This threat? Power blackouts.
In a country where winter winds are known to blow streams up cliff-faces, the challenge of creating a stable, independent power system has proven daunting and expensive. The Faroe Islands historically have relied on the pricey practice of importing oil to keep lights on and electricity flowing. In 2011, about 60 percent of Faroese power came from imported oil—a practice predicted to become more costly as oil prices rise.
To fight the cost of oil and preserve their slice of Eden, the Faroe Islands have taken an aggressive approach to developing a system based on renewable energy. While the European Union has a target of producing 20 percent renewable energy by 2020, the Faroes plan to produce 75 percent of their power from renewable resources by the same year.
This goal is ambitious, but also high risk, high reward. Many energy experts consider reliability one of renewable energy’s greatest stumbling blocks—not exactly great news for the fishing industry. However, if the Faroe Islands manage to develop a stable energy system that integrates large amounts of renewable energy, not only will it secure the economy, but it could potentially pave the way for creating energy solutions around the world.
So how does this unknown fishing nation, with a population of just 49,000, plan to reach this ambitious green-energy goal?
By marketing itself as the perfect playground for experimental green energy technology.
The ends of earth
Despite falling under the rule of Denmark, the Faroese consider themselves largely autonomous, and definitely not Danes. Ever since Vikings landed on the group of 18 islands in the Ninth Century, the Faroese have been developing a culture, away from mainland Europe. Today, the Faroe Islands have their own language, history, government, banking system, university, vibrant music scene and cuisine. Some Faroese have talked about cutting subsidies they receive from Denmark to gain full economic independence.
Many Faroese say it’s their relationship with nature that separates them from their mainland European counterparts. While many modern towns and cities erode their natural environments with concrete and industry, the Faroese have grown into their surroundings. Little fishing towns with colorful, grass-covered roofs sit in valleys near the water. Sheep wander the hillsides, outnumbering the human population by about 20,000. Even hydroelectric power—a mode of energy production that many outside the islands might consider a green upgrade—has fallen out of favor with many in the Faroe Islands who view dams and reservoirs as eyesores, destroying the natural beauty of the hillsides.
“We are living from what you get from the sea and from the land,” says Svend Aage Ellfsen, a local hotel owner and the minister of energy for the islands in the '90s. “I think every man and woman on the Faroe Islands is extremely aware that we have to take care of nature. So renewable energy has a first priority.”
The Islands, whose rocky cliffs are blasted with high winds off the Atlantic Ocean, are ripe with natural resources to fuel projects in wind, hydro and tidal power. Terji Nielsen, a project manager at SEV, the main Faroese utility company, says the Islands are ideal for testing new technologies because their effects on the islands’ small grid are more apparent than they would be on a larger grid system.
In fact, most foreign energy investment in the Faroe Islands is in cutting-edge new technology, rather than traditional wind and solar. For example, Jardfeingi, the government’s environment and energy department, says that Voith, a German company, may test a tidal power machine in Faroese waters. Tidal power is a type of hydropower that uses the flow of tides instead of dams and reservoirs. A previous tidal-power project called SeWave has stalled.
Although the Faroe Islands have no lack of natural resources, even larger countries seeking to integrate sizeable amounts of renewable energy into their existing grid systems struggle to do so without jeopardizing the stability of the systems. The problem lies in storage and integration into the grid: What is the most efficient way to store unpredictable renewable energy, such as wind and solar, to be used when there is consumer demand?
Finding a way to stabilize renewable energy in small grid systems, such as on the Faroe Islands, can be even more difficult because a drop of one resource—such as a sudden drop in wind power—can have more drastic effects on the whole system.
As energy companies around the world grapple with this issue, the concept of “smart grids” has gained traction. Very generally, a smart grid is an electrical grid that functions digitally, or virtually, to better allocate resources and power. For example, smart meters and virtual control centers, which can collect, analyze and respond to electricity consumption, are both are examples of smart grid technology.
Some energy experts believe developing smart microgrids could hold the key to a more resilient energy infrastructure of the future. Microgrids are small-scale grids that can function connected or disconnected from a larger grid system. The idea is that a large system composed of microgrids would be more resilient. For example, if a major storm like Hurricane Sandy knocked out power on the U.S. East coast, microgrids could help small areas—such as neighborhoods or hospital campuses—to regain power sooner, instead of waiting for the whole grid to reboot.
Although large utilities have been opposed to microgrid systems in the past, others, such as ComEd in the United States, are joining startups and other large energy companies working on microgrid development.
On the other hand, a successful microgrid system that could be customized and scaled for various environments might mean for the first time remote areas in some developing nations would have access to stable electricity. According to the International Energy Agency, in 2009, up to 1.3 billion people did not have access to electricity.
The Faroe Islands, a natural microgrid due to its size and isolation, could therefore be the ideal testing-ground for bringing smart microgrid technology to the world.
Big risk, big reward
DONG Energy, the largest Danish power company, realized all this a few years ago. “They could see that the Faroe Islands is actually a playground, testing out different smart grid initiatives,” Nielsen says. Through a bundle of projects with DONG, including the eventual deployment of electric cars, SEV hopes that a smartgrid technology called Power Hub will help stabilize the Islands’ power supply and eventually eradicate—or at least weaken—blackouts.
Although the number of blackouts has steadily decreased over the past few decades, Nielsen says the Islands still face one to three major blackouts per year. This means power to each of the main islands flickers off for an average of 20 to 30 minutes. But Nielsen says the islands have faced blackouts lasting two to four hours as well.
“We are an isolated system, we have no interconnections to other countries,” he says. “So when an engine fails we have no support from elsewhere. We are on our own.”
Installed in 2012, Power Hub is a type of virtual power plant, whose headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark, monitors the ebb and flow of electricity around the Faroe Islands. If there’s a change in electricity production or a drop in power, Power Hub will reroute electricity to keep the system stable. DONG calls this “fast frequency demand response.” However, it’s during major power disruptions that Power Hub’s real potential comes into play.
SEV and DONG Energy found three industrial sites on the Faroe Islands that they consider major power consumers. These sites include HiddenFjord, a cold storage site called Bergfrost, and Kollafjord Pelagic, a fish-freezing facility. “When these industries have their peak consumption, it is up to 10 percent of the peak consumption totally on the island,” says Anders Birke, the lead IT architect at DONG Energy.
Each of these sites uses what DONG and SEV call “internal inertia,” meaning part of each factory can be shut off for a short amount of time without any adverse effects. For instance, at HiddenFjord’s smolt site, Power Hub is linked to the heat pump system, which controls the temperature of the water in the salmon tanks. According to Roi Joensen, the technical manager at HiddenFjord, the heat pumps can be turned off for about 30 minutes before they need to be turned back on.
By switching off power at these industrial sites, Power Hub creates time to fix whatever caused the original drop in power. “It’s the combination of all the different capabilities that Power Hub has that make it one of the world’s most advanced,” Birke says.
For three facilities so reliant on keeping the power on—they all are part of the fishing industry— voluntarily opting to test a technology that experiments with part of their electricity supply may seem a bit dicey; there’s always the possibility that a drop in power may require more than half an hour to remedy. But Birke says each industry reserves the right to turn off Power Hub if it looks like it will start affecting business.
Although Power Hub has not completely eliminated blackouts on the Faroe Islands in the year and a half it has been running, Birke and Nielsen are optimistic. Nielsen estimates that Power Hub has prevented three full blackouts on the islands so far, and has generally reacted to 15 incidents. HiddenFjord also plans on incorporating Power Hub into the new warehouse it is constructing.
Above the tiny town of Toftir, up a narrow road to a hill overlooking the sea, the steel blades of five wind turbines slice through the chilly air to the sound of waves and the occasional baaing of sheep. At Toftir, SEV’s first big foray into wind power, traditional wind turbines have been cast aside in favor of shorter, stronger turbines usually reserved for off-shore wind farms.
On the Faroe Islands, harvesting wind power is the next big challenge for the grid. Average wind speeds on the Faroe Islands reach up to 10 meters per second, or about 22 miles per hour. Most U.S. cities clock in at about 10 to 12 mph. During stormy weather on the Faroes, wind speeds have been measured at up to 67 meters per second, about 150 miles per hour. To capitalize on wind, SEV is expanding its fleet of turbines at a new wind park named Húsahagi, right outside the capital. Once completed this summer, SEV expects 26 percent of the country’s energy production will come from wind.
Although wind power might seem an obvious choice on the Islands, it was RØKT, a private energy company, that developed the first commercial wind farm on the islands.
“We are not doing a project where we are scientists, where we have to find some sort of new technology,” says Jóhan í Niðristovu, an airline pilot and businessman. Niðristovu runs RØKT, SEV’s sole competitor in the Faroese energy market. “We are only looking at where you can use known technologies, but use them in a different way.”
Niðristovu built a small wind farm of three turbines above the town of Vestmanna, in the west. The turbines have been selling power to SEV for the past decade. Niðristovu, a reserved man with lined eyes and a small smile, considers RØKT the technical competition to SEV, good for keeping the utility monopoly on its toes. However, Niðristovu hasn’t just watched his three turbines spin over the past 10 years. In fact, he has been working on a few energy projects, one of which is a type of wind and hydroelectric pump system.
The hybrid system will utilize Niðristovu’s three wind turbines and two nearby reservoirs. One reservoir sits next to the turbines, at the top of the hill. The other, larger reservoir, sits partway down the hill. Niðristovu plans to connect the reservoirs by expanding an existing tunnel between the two. At night, when demand for electricity is low, power generated by the wind turbines will be used to pump water from the lower reservoir to the upper reservoir. During the day, when demand for electricity is higher, power will be generated by both the wind turbines and water flowing from the upper reservoir to the lower. Niðristovu says inspiration for the pump system came from similar designs he studied in Austria and Norway. He believes such a system on an island will be a first.
Back in the capital of Torshavn, Aarostova, a white-tablecloth restaurant serving traditional Faroese fare, kicks off a busy Thursday night. Even though the sun won’t set until nearly 1 a.m. in the spring, candles light the small restaurant. Bottles of fine Bordeaux line the wood-paneled walls. At a table near the front, an English-speaking couple chats with the chef about the night’s dishes, snapping close-up photos of the delicate smoked salmon appetizer and the tender braised leg-of-lamb entrée. A group singing in Faroese can be heard above the clink of forks from a room downstairs.
For a long time, the Faroe Islands have flown under the radar. But perhaps the tides are about to turn. Successful projects on the Faroe Islands have the potential to shape how other small island nations, and even mainland countries, approach reliable, renewable energy. Recently DONG partnered with Schneider Electric, a French energy management company, to build on Power Hub’s success in the Faroe Islands and bring it to other remote islands around the world.
In the meantime, the Faroese welcome foreign innovation with open arms. “Hopefully there will be more interesting things on the islands in the future. We are moving quite fast in the right way,” Niðristovu says. “We have the area, so just come.”