by Linda Bertelsen
Lerwich, Shetland, photo by Wielka Brytania

A recent study of Shetlanders found that up to 44% of our DNA was of Scandinavian origin. That suggests many Viking tourists formed strong relationships in the islands years ago!
Shetland was part of Denmark up until 1469. At that time, King Christian the 1st, who was not quite as well off as he wanted to be, pawned the islands to King James the Third of Scotland as part of a dowry payment for his daughter Margaret’s marriage to the Scottish king. This was an I.O.U. that was supposed to be redeemed, but Scotland formally annexed the islands three years later, and they never did return to Denmark.

By Derek Leask, Executive Director, Shetland Heat Energy and Power

A local restaurant in Lerwick called the Dowry commemorates this event today. However, there is no need to travel far to Shetland to see the constant influence of Scandinavian history. From street names such as King Haakon and King Harald Street, hotels such as the Kveldsro and Busta, and place names such as Lerwick, Muckle Roe, and Tingwall, Scandinavian influence is all around.

What does this all have to do with the Lerwick district heating scheme, I hear the reader ask?

In the 1990s, the Shetland Islands Council started looking for new solutions for disposing of domestic and commercial waste and reducing its environmental impact. A UK-based organisation may have been expected to look nationally for solutions. But with the close connections still prevalent with Scandinavia, Shetland looked across the North Sea to Denmark for inspiration in finding the solution.

After contacts were made and exchange visits had taken place, the outcome was to invest in a project to build a waste-to-energy plant producing heat for a local district heating scheme to supply the island’s capital town of Lerwick. Copenhagen-based waste-to-energy (WTE) engineers, COWI, were engaged to design and create the system, and Shetland Heat Energy and Power (SHEAP) came into existence in 1999.

The WTE plant was built with Danish expertise, came online in 2000, and was owned and operated by the council. SHEAP was formed as a separate organisation and was financed and owned by the Shetland Charitable Trust (SCT) which uses funds derived from the Oil and Gas industry in Shetland to benefit the local community.

Over the years, the charitable trust gradually stepped back from having a hands-on role in the business. While SCT is still the total shareholder, SHEAP now operates independently and as a separate commercial entity.

This created an unusual industry model. Most WET Companies own the means of production and the mode of delivery and supply of the heat produced. Many will also be producing electricity as well. In Shetland, SHEAP and the ERP (owned by the council) are community-facing and work closely together to ensure maximum community benefit.

This manifests in the low carbon/emission disposal of municipal waste and the affordable and low emission of energy for supply to the community through heat and hot water.

Shetland is 200 miles away from the nearest city in Scotland, Aberdeen, so many of the developments or initiatives in the islands are not visible or recognised in mainland Scotland or at a national central government level. SHEAP has worked away for over 20 years, providing low-cost, low-emission heat and being a significant part of the solution in diverting Shetland’s waste from landfills. However, this has mostly gone under the national political radar.

As governments worldwide take increasingly accelerated action to prevent catastrophic climate change, heating networks are suddenly seen as a positive weapon in moving away from fossil fuel-based energy.

Recent legislation at the Scottish government level is now recognizing and supporting the creation and development of heating networks across Scotland, and the waste-to-energy infrastructure in Shetland is finally seen as a leader in this field and as the positive force for good that it is.

Up Helly Aa’s

There are also the famous fire festivals called Up Helly Aa’s, held to celebrate the end of winter and ostensibly to celebrate Viking heritage but, in reality, more to do with the Shetlander’s love of a good party.

However the craft and skill that goes into producing hundreds of authentic Viking outfits each year with replica armour and weaponry creates a nostalgic impression of our Scandinavian past that maintains the connection to this present day.

Lerwick,Scotland Photo,From,Up,Helly,Aa,Festivals,In,Scotland

The irony of this is that we now have a different challenge. As heat networks are embraced, and new developments are encouraged, the Shetland scheme has been in operation for so long that the preservation and asset management of the network is now key priorities.

To not fall behind, SHEAP has initiated a renewed estate management program and set about introducing measures to hopefully see the network last for at least another twenty years.

This program aimed to benchmark and share knowledge and experiences with other district heating operators and organizations. Who better to turn to now than our colleagues in Denmark once more?

In early summer, we saw an advert in the Hot | Cool Danish District Heating magazine promoting a mentoring program for UK-based district heating companies. We contacted Morten Duedahl, business development manager at DBDH, who explained the scheme and invited us to participate.

Shetland district heating

Soon, we were introduced to our mentor, Morten Stobbe from VEKS, who operates district heating schemes in Copenhagen. Several ZOOM calls later, we’ve had high-quality presentations and discourse from various representatives from Denmark’s district heating supply chain. Morten from VEKS has remained a consistently positive presence where we’ve exchanged knowledge and ideas on operating district heating.

During this time, we also contacted other district heating schemes in the United Kingdom and exchanged ideas and knowledge about our challenges and opportunities.

Ironically, this quality of engagement and strong communication is almost because of COVID-19 and not despite it. Suddenly, having the opportunity and ability to arrange video calls and reach out to so many people has been helpful. Living remotely in Shetland, almost every meeting before COVID-19 requires a plane trip, so seeing the world becoming used to video conferencing is good for us and the planet.

Through our mentoring with the DBDH, we developed a new approach to network management. An issue for us and many district heating operators is that most interventions seem reactive. There are so many disadvantages to this it’s hard to know where to begin.

However, it’s like a sticking plaster approach where we’re constantly repairing leaks. What we wanted to do in Shetland was renovate the network and improve its integrity to eliminate leaks.

The sticking plaster approach also means that leaks occur in the most inconvenient places at the most inconvenient time – Murphy’s law, as we say here in the UK. We want to control how we intervene on the network and reduce this erratic approach, both operationally and for customers.

Before joining the mentoring scheme, we’d started considering the possibility of drone surveys to assess our network condition. We’ve some excellent drone companies in Shetland, but they are unfamiliar with thermographic surveying.

Through the mentoring program, we were introduced to a Danish drone company specializing in district heating surveys, which was a light bulb moment for us. We partnered with our local drone specialist in Lerwick, and we now have a proposal for a complete drone survey, which should give us visibility on all vulnerable areas of the network.

Through discussion with Morten at VEKS, we learned of the traffic light approach to network management. This is where areas of town can be divided into high, medium, and low risk. We’ve adopted this approach at SHEAP and have a planned intervention and renovation program on our network for next year. We anticipate that the drone survey will provide the data we require, and this can be done more regularly and will form the basis of a proactive estate management program in the future.

Of course, we will still have unexpected leaks, I’m sure. But now, at least, we feel empowered and have changed our asset management regime to proactive from reactive, which is a huge benefit going forward.

These are not the only links we maintain with Denmark. BWV recently signed a significant contract to install water-cooled wear zones at the Waste to Energy plant in Lerwick. After twenty years, we’re still working with COWI and have recently engaged them to look at several new energy initiatives on our behalf.

The history books say that the Norsemen first colonised Shetland in the 9th century. Eleven hundred years is a long time to maintain a working relationship, so we must have something in common, not just our shared ancestry.

Shetland Isles, photo Wielka BrytaniaWe’ve been delighted with our participation in the DBDH mentoring program and cooperation with our Danish district heating suppliers. I’m not sure if we’ll still be doing business in another eleven hundred years, but support for just another 50 years of Lerwick district heating will do fine.

For further information, please contact Derek Leask, Derek.Leask@shetland.gov.uk

Meet the author

Derek Leask
Executive Director, Shetland Heat Energy and Power
“District Heating – from Denmark to Shetland” was published in Hot Cool, edition no. 4/2020. You can download the article here:
District Heating from Denmark to Shetland, Hot Cool article, 2020, no. 4