Researchers Hope To Harness Tidal Energy to Power Faroe Islands

Throughout history, the currents in the fjord between two of the islands made travel treacherous. Now, the tides may be changing.

By Regin Winther PoulsenFeb 16, 2024 11:00 AM
Faroe Islands
Today Streymoy (foreground) and Hestur (in distance) islands are connected by a ferry, but such travel was impossible for most of their history. (Credit: Andrew Mayovskyy/shutterstock)


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For centuries, life on Hestur, a small Faroese island located halfway between Scotland and Iceland in the northeast Atlantic, was isolated: Streymoy, the biggest of the 18 islands that comprise the Faroe Islands, is almost ironically close, within eyeshot, but powerful currents in the fjord dividing the two islands long made travel between them difficult.

Today, a modern ferry connects Hestur and Streymoy, but across most of its history, Hestur’s inhabitants were left to care for themselves. They survived on sheep, birds, and, most importantly, fish — though fishing came with its own dangers. In 1919, 11 men — about a third of the island’s men who were fit to work — died when two boats disappeared in the fjord during a storm. For many of the survivors, the accident instilled a deep respect for the sea; even today, with only 15 residents remaining on the island, that sentiment lives on.

Now, however, the fjord’s powerful currents may become the center of a new legacy: The Swedish company Minesto wants to harness them and build the world’s first tidal energy park. The array of sea turbines, which would float between Hestur and Streymoy, is expected to produce around 20 percent of all Faroese energy by 2030, the company claims. And when combined with other ongoing projects, Minesto hopes that tidal energy will eventually produce around 40 percent of the growing energy consumption of the archipelago’s 54,000 residents.

“The Faroe Islands will be the showcase for the world,” says CEO Martin Edlund, adding that he believes tidal energy could be a huge factor in reducing carbon dioxide emissions globally.

But the project is still undergoing an environmental impact survey — and some researchers and residents are concerned that harnessing the island nation’s tidal power may come at a cost.

(Credit: Oleh_Slobodeniuk/E+ VIA getty)

Four seasons in a day

The economy of the Faroe Islands has been built primarily on the open sea and in its fjords: Up to 90 percent of its export value, and around 20 percent of its gross domestic products (or GDP), comes from fishing or fish-farming.

While the nation is heavily dependent on natural resources, it also relies on carbon-expensive energy sources such as oil, which accounted for 45 percent of its energy production in 2022. Still, the Faroese renewable energy sector is strong: Since the early ’90s, their electricity production’s share of green energy has been around 40 percent, and in 2014, the public energy company SEV pledged that all energy production on land would be 100 percent renewable by 2030. The plan earned the company the Nordic Council’s Nature and Environment prize.

One of the places SEV looked to achieve this was at sea. In a region that can experience the weather of all four seasons in a day — plus wind gusts too strong for windmills — the prospect of harnessing the Faroe Islands’ historically perilous currents was exciting. Unlike the wind, the tides are far more predictable.

“As long as the sun and moon are in place, we know the currents for a hundred years,” says Terij Nielsen, head of research and development at SEV.

Finding the right supplier of tidal energy wasn’t easy. But in 2018, representatives from Minesto met with SEV at a conference in London and instantly saw the possibilities of a potential partnership. The two parties signed a contract for cooperation, with SEV pledging to buy energy from Minesto at a fixed price and provide research while Minesto tested its turbines in the ocean.

For Edlund, the Faroe Islands have become an important testing ground for developing his company’s products — thanks in part, he says, to the Faroese authorities’ pragmatic approach to environmental concerns. “You always have the burden of proof on your shoulders when you introduce a new technology into an ecosystem,” says Edlund.

Renewable energy company Minesto has already tried their tidal kite off northwestern Streymoy at Vestmannasund, and are currently seeking permits to do the same in the turbulent waters of Hestur’s fjord. (Credit: Minesto)

Awaken the dragon

Most tidal energy solutions are made like grids at the bottom of the sea, with windmill-like turbines attached to them; they require construction on the seabed and maintenance is expensive. SEV was first exploring such a traditional solution, but decided the needed investment and the cost of upkeep was too high for a research project.

Instead, Minesto hopes to generate electricity with yellow, plane-shaped turbines linked to the seafloor by a metal cable, making the start-up investment lower and maintenance more manageable.

The turbines are called “dragons,” but look more like kites, and come in different lengths: The most vigorously tested in the Faroe Islands has a wingspan of over 16 feet, but a newer model is more than double that, at nearly 40 feet long. The devices travel in a figure-eight trajectory. This movement pulls them through the water much faster than the speed at which currents are flowing, generating energy that is transmitted via power cables to shore.

Minesto has already received licenses to work with a tidal kite in Vestmannasund, the northwestern part of nearby Streymoy, and representatives are in the process of securing a permit for the first array of kites in Hestur’s fjord. So far, there have not been any problems in the devices’ interactions with mammals, birds, or fish in the Faroes, according to Edlund.

Beth Scott, an ecologist at Aberdeen University in Scotland, worries that if the kites aren’t placed strategically, the structures might block smaller tidal streams where sea animals — particularly large marine mammals and fish like basking sharks — tend to pass through.

A 2021 study published in Aquatic Conservation showed that over an 18-month observation period of the coast of Scotland, harbor porpoises effectively avoided tidal turbine rotors. Though porpoises were near the turbines 344 times during that time, only one animal passed through the rotor area — and that was while the rotors were stationary. Zero porpoises passed through the areas while the rotors were in motion. There’s no evidence “of the vast majority of the types of turbines designed for tidal streams killing anything, including fish that they’ve constrained in a lab with the [turbine] going,” Scott says — rather, the worry is that if mammals can’t pursue their regular habits they might be displaced and their feeding disrupted.

Scott also says she is “a little concerned” about the Minesto kites versus other types of tidal turbines because they are faster and move in the midwater column, as opposed to being predictably in just one location on the seafloor. She worries that marine mammals could be injured if they are hit by the turbine. “We don’t know if animals, such as seals, can avoid them by changing their behavior farther away or closer to the kites,” she says.

Risks of collisions with tidal turbines aside, Scott has also looked into whether the extraction of tidal energy could influence the tide itself — and in turn, impact the well-being of small fish larvae or species that follow the tide to spawn. She teamed up with Michela De Dominicis, a physical oceanographer at the National Oceanography Centre in Liverpool in England, in 2015 to find out. Their computer models concluded that, though many of the traditional turbines combined could extract enough energy to affect the mixing of the water’s cooler lower and warmer upper levels, this would be nothing compared to the effects of a 2050 worst-case climate change scenario. In fact, the decrease in the mixing of the water levels due to climate change “is 10 times larger than what I could potentially get with 20,000 turbines in Scottish waters,” says De Dominicis.

Though she retains some skepticism, Scott agrees ecological impacts might be mitigated by thoughtfully placing the turbines where they cannot block the high-energy straits that many animals pass through. Using De Dominicis’ models, the researchers have been able to do just that, visualizing the effects of turbine placements well in advance.

In 2020, after two years of investment and testing, Minesto’s activities in the Faroes reached a milestone. For the first time, the company’s kite in Vestmannasund produced electricity for the Faroese electric grid.

The Faroe Islands' economy (and cultural tradition) leans heavily on the sea, with 90 percent of its export value coming from fishing. (Credit: Elisa Sarasso/iStock via Getty Images)

Cause and effect

True, islands like the Faroes don’t consume large amounts of energy to begin with. But this project is only the beginning.

Within the next decade, Edlund believes tidal energy will become a key part of the global climate solution. “The area in the world where we see the largest potential is Asia Pacific,” he says, adding that some of the most carbon-intensive energy systems in the world are there, and that many of these countries are small islands without the capacity for alternative big energy investment. “They have tens of thousands of islands, and a very strong current from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean,” he says.

Of course, it must all start in Hestur, where fishermen worry about the project’s effect on their small population. It is still early days and the locals haven’t been given detailed information yet, but Sverri Rasmussen, one of the last three fishermen in Hestur, says he is afraid the already-struggling Faroese fishing fleet will lose an important fishing area when the turbines are placed. The fjord is key for fishing in the autumn, when the open sea is too harsh. It is possible to go elsewhere, he says, “but then those areas will be even more used.”

Rasmussen isn’t optimistic about the future of the island. “In not that many years, no people will be here,” he says with a sense of defeat in his voice. When he was a child, other kids lived on Hestur — now, there are no school-aged children. For those who remain, there are a scant handful of jobs; as in the days when the currents in the fjord isolated the community, fishing is still the cornerstone.

“This is the best fishing area in the autumn season,” he says of the fjord. But if that goes too — “We’re going to feel the effects of it.

This story was originally published in our March April 2024 issue. Click here to subscribe to read more stories like this one.

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