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Stormpunk Islands

Published onOct 26, 2023
Stormpunk Islands

Author’s Note: This piece of “speculative fabulation” is set in the near future.1 It is based on evidence from my research over the last decade as an ethnographer of energy organizations in Orkney, a group of islands off the north coast of Scotland, which I explore more fully in my book Energy at the End of the World.2 Details from my research are included here via endnotes. All the characters in this piece of writing are fictional, however.

The white digits of the wave height monitor glowed “30”: thirty-metre-high waves.3 Spume would be exploding into the air, the sea spray like white knives slicing down into the clifftops.

Inside the humming control room the two islanders were silent, faces unblinking in the light of the monitor bank. The screens were dense with number columns, control-system diagrams, and power-line curves. From here, the two managed the islands’ electricity grid network and its connection to mainland Scotland. I watched, taking notes, a researcher keen to understand how this control room, off the north edge of the UK map, worked—knowing enough to be worried about the weather, knowing too little to help.

Alex, my informant and the director of the islands’ energy company, tapped her pad, frowning, black eyes focused. A curved graph glowed on the nearest screen. Metal stress, I guessed, for the tide energy turbines riding out the storm between the islands. Could the machines survive this? If just one device broke free of its moorings, the whole site might be turned into one giant twisted wreck. Each generator was a seventy-metre-long float with two rotors beneath the surface that turned in the tidal flow.4 It was a lot of mass for the sea to throw around. Unanchored in this weather, it would be like a rogue torpedo.

Winter storms were common here in Orkney, the archipelago of islands off the northeast coast of Scotland, where the Atlantic and the North Sea collided. This was my second official “violent storm” this month. The energy in the sea and air were literal. It was why the islands had long been a world centre for renewable energy—the planet designated where the power was.5

The wind thundered at the walls of the control centre. My chest tightened with the sudden pressure shift, my ears deadening. Sudden hard rain screeched against the windows like metal on glass. Through the toughened double-glazing, the view reached over tall slate roofs and sodden chimneys all jammed together, the shape of the old town. The crush of stone houses stepped down the hill towards the bristling harbour waters. Beyond, the dark hulk of two hills on the next island stopped the southwestern sky, and ahead the horizon glowed guard-red from the hydrogen fuel terminal out in Scapa Flow.6

It was midday, but November dim and wild. Everything was shut and lashed down for safety. Schooling was online.7 The demand for heating was rising. Deliveries were suspended, which meant everything—buses, vans, cars—were all parked up and on charge. As I watched the screens, the load on the grid kept climbing.

Alex pressed her hand to her pursed lips, eyes narrowing at a jagged power signal on screen. “We’re going to have to V2G zone three,” she murmured, referring to the islands’ smart grid that her company managed.8 Her blue company fleece was zipped up tight around her neck, the white and lime green logo stretched taut across her back.

Beside her, Jim the engineer, pale and poured heavy into his chair, nodded. “Aye. Reckon we call this one in. What ‘ya think?” He turned, waiting for her to make the decision.

Alex tilted her head, sighed, gold hooped earrings catching the graph light. “We’ve got to keep those heat pumps going for the council. We can’t have folk sitting in the freezing cold. But we have that mainland obligation. So, yeah. Put a call together.”9

“I’ll ping everyone. Though, not sure we’ll get them in this.”

“We’ll get Freya.”

“We always get Freya.”

It was a standing joke. Freya managed the marine energy test site up the street and had an unerring ability to be everywhere at once. When I interviewed her for my research, she was also in two other meetings, one in each earbud.

Jim sent out some texts, set up a call with the company’s board.

I’d heard about this, but not seen it during my fieldwork. Like all energy operators, the island company had to manage the electricity grid, making sure demand was exactly balanced with generation. Theirs was a flexible system, so they were able to manage home batteries, solar panels, electric vehicle chargers (including Vehicle-to-Grid or V2G chargers), heating systems, as well as hydrogen storage, wind turbines, and the tide energy array. On rare occasions, when balancing the grid became problematic, the board made the final decision on who got electricity and who didn’t. There was an algorithm that ran the system most of the time—switching devices on and off as needed to keep the power balanced—but its programmed priorities were not always the right ones for the islands in tricky situations such as this. From what Alex had said, there was a risk that some islanders might have their heating switched off today. In this community of twenty-five thousand people, leaving fellow islanders in the cold—especially islanders living in the council’s social housing—would be unacceptable. Aside from the moral implications of leaving vulnerable and older people in the freezing cold, it would damage the trust islanders had in their energy company and in their neighbours who worked there. For Alex and Jim, this must be personal as well as technical.

Five people from the company board joined a screen, including Freya, who was icon-only and probably on another call.

Simone, the island trust representative, all grey hair and teeth, appeared frozen due to poor reception on the outer isles. The bandwidth was no doubt being hammered by everyone working from home. She joined back in on audio.

“Whit like? Bit blowy,” she said with typical understatement, phone line crackling.

“Good to see you all,” Alex began the meeting, bright but firm. “Jim sent you the numbers.”

There was a fumbling of clicks on the conference call channel. This was an open-source app that had been bootstrapped into the islands’ social media service. It was amateur and annoying but worked, and had the advantage of being powered by the local data centre.10 Small bits of local news appeared around the edge of the screen, then faded like speech bubbles whispering of cancelled yoga and winter folktales. I tried not to get distracted.

“We’re predicting a heat pump load that’s going to push us over,” said Alex.

“Wind is out,” added Jim, reminding everyone that the local wind turbines had all been switched off and locked down to preserve them from storm damage.

“So we’re down to the tidal arrays. And the batteries.”

“Tidal’s looking good to me,” jumped in Freya. She was probably checking the same stress data as us, but she knew the device tolerances better. If she was happy with the numbers, then there was a good chance the tide turbines would survive and keep generating.

From these scattered comments, I realised the islanders had not prepared to buy power from mainland Scotland today to cover this unexpected shortfall. They seemed to avoid buying energy from the mainland whenever they could. Alex said it was because their profits were needed to fund local infrastructure: libraries and harbours didn’t stay open by themselves.11

“Thanks, Freya,” responded Alex, sleek and smooth. “We’re low on hydrogen after that last tanker. So we’re going to V2G everything we’ve got.”

“Let’s hope no one forgot the milk,” muttered Jim.

“It’ll come back to bite us, I know,” Alex continued. “But this is going to blow through late afternoon, so we should be able to put the charge back.” She was referring to those who were signed up for a cheaper energy tariff with a Vehicle-to-Grid charger: they paid less for their electricity because they took the risk that the company might use their electric car charge in times like this. They would now be forced to wait until the wind turbines restarted and their cars were recharged.

Nobody said anything, waiting for the real issue.

“We’re contracted to the mainland for about ten megawatts more than we have, if we keep the heat pumps going. System wants to shut them down. Meet the obligation.”

There was silence for a moment. Alex’s gaze flicked between the three faces on screen. Even sitting down she appeared tall. She was the only person I knew who could wear a fleece and look well-dressed. “My call—we keep the heat pumps going. Cut the contract. Take the hit.”

I stared at her, shocked, but Alex was expressionless. I wondered if I she’d allow me to keep a recording of this conversation as research data.

“I agree,” called out Simone over the speakers, firm. “Call the bank.” She was probably thinking of her neighbours. Living on the outer isles was a constant battle against depopulation due to limited jobs and high transport costs. They had more fuel-poor islanders than the large island we were on. But for Alex, as company director, to propose keeping the heat pumps on whilst cutting their power commitment to mainland Scotland? That seemed bizarre. Aberdeen, Glasgow: the cities were dependent on green energy from the islands and other remote regions. And Orkney was beholden to them for income from selling their storm-powered electricity. That was the way the world worked. From what I knew of the regulations, Alex could ask (or “bid”) to reduce their contract to supply electricity to the grid and mainland cities. In this weather, though, with everyone at home making tea, they would probably be refused and have to pay for electricity from somewhere else to meet the obligation. That last-minute electricity would be sold at a premium—if they could get it at all—hence the need for a bank loan, if I understood Simone. But, as a small company, they didn’t have a long “cash runway,” as Alex liked to called it.

Would they go bankrupt? How much was Alex putting on the line, I wondered.

The others agreed with Simone in quick succession.

“Done,” said Freya, and cut the line, no doubt turning to her other conversations.

I sat stunned, couldn’t quite believe it. The board was unanimous. The heat pumps would stay on, keeping islanders warm whilst the company took the financial hit, and faraway cities fended for themselves. Alex tapped out a call to the bank.

Then Alex gave a sharp breath and stopped typing. Jim muttered an oath.

A screen showed a camera feed from one of the tidal arrays. It was blurry but, instead of a neat stitching of yellow lines in the sea, one stitch was coming undone. One of the hazard-yellow tide machines seemed to be twisted. I held my breath, wondering if the whole array was about to become unpicked, the pattern shattered.12

There was nothing to do but hope until the storm passed.

The wind thundered, unfettered around us. The rain continued with its own timeless force, firing wet arrowheads over us from some forgotten Viking battle.13 I peered out through the window at the two dark hills on the island of Hoy, wondering how long it would last, waiting for news from the bank. In the dip between the hills, a faint brightness lightened the cloud. On these islands, it seemed, there was always hope.

Four hours later and I was gripping a car door handle in a sodden car park beside a heart-thudding sea, feeling less hopeful and more foolish. I gritted my teeth and pushed harder against the wind. The door opened just enough for me to squeeze out, although I risked dismemberment as the carbon-fibre frame dug into my shoulder.

The word “storm” kept getting redefined during my fieldwork. “Storm” now appeared to mean: not being able to get out of your car because the wind was too strong.

I wobbled as the wind lifted me, made me almost weightless for a moment. My oversized jacket ballooned in all directions and I stumbled around like an untrained astronaut. Alex, in tight red waterproofs and two white woollen hats, was already out in the churning air. She was stretched over the car bonnet with binoculars, arms pressed against the surface, scanning the waves. The car rocked beneath her, but she seemed unconcerned.

The rain had moved on to fight another day, and the wind lessened to safer levels, so Alex offered to take me with her to check the tidal site. We’d watched all afternoon on the screen, seen the rogue tide machine twist and turn, testing its anchor. One of its mooring lines might have snapped. Then the remote camera had given up, and we’d lost the feed.

I followed Alex’s approach and widened my stance, leaned into the buffeting wind, and shouldered my way forward, step by hard-won step. Clumps of thick spume whirled in air, like fur torn from some deep-sea leviathan.

“These are the storm islands!” I yelled to her, wry.

Alex gave slight smile behind the binoculars, noncommittal. She was a storm islander, born to the storm. The islands were inside her, part of her being.

I braced myself on the slick flagstones, recalibrated my gaze, and looked out over the cliff’s edge.

Half a mile or so offshore, the sea looked like it had been sewn with flashing bands of yellow thread. Each stitch was the floating tube of a tide energy machine, trailing a white wake as though trying to hold the sea taut and stop it from runkling. Beneath the surface, their twin blades turned in the fast-moving tide. I squinted hard but couldn’t see anything untoward in the shape of the array. All the stitches seemed aligned.

“Is everything alright?” I yelled at Alex.

“3E looks off,” she shouted back, pointing, offering the binoculars. “We’ll get a boat out soon as it’s safe.”

It was a metal tetrahedron, resting askance on the stones near the high-water mark. I made a mental check on the distance and realised the tetrahedron was big enough for a person to curl up inside. Its hard-wrought silver edges and perfect pyramidal shape were more mythic than pragmatic. An Orcadian storyteller had told me folktales about the selkie on these shores: seals that shapeshifted into humans by slipping out of their oiled skins.14 Was this selkie tech from undersea? As I looked, the beach came alive with glistening grey, rounded stones, perhaps seals basking or their abandoned, folded skin.

The stones boomed with sudden deep song; my feet lifted, skidded, and my face hit rock. I spat out grit, knees shocked with the fall. My chest felt too light over the ground, too slippery. My jacket was like a sail, giving me to the wind, sending me over the cliff edge. I grabbed, hands raw, too cold, too wet to have real strength. I couldn’t find anything to grip. I scrabbled. Felt ridiculous. Desperate.

Then there was a force on my arm, holding me still. Alex was crouched down, sturdy hiking boots anchoring her. “You okay?” She asked in my ear, concerned.

I got my feet under me and started apologising. I felt like an amateur, an incomer, embarrassingly far from ever being a local.

Alex looked unperturbed, the professional astronaut in their element, gold earrings dripping under her twin white hats, binoculars stowed, black gloves immaculate.

My left palm prickled with blood, stinging in the salt air. I shuddered with leftover shock, shook out my hand. I felt infected with the storm. The islands had bit me. What was I now: half human, half shuddering island? Not so much cyborg, half human–half machine, but storm-borg, half human–half weather-edged place. Maybe I would shake out of my human skin one day and find myself shivering inside the silver tetrahedron, slipping into the sea.

I squeezed my palm closed, hiding the blood, and took a long breath. But the island stole it from my mouth so it was no longer mine. I turned my face away from the wind, tried again.

“What is that?” I asked, leaning in to Alex, who was back to scanning the waves.

She shook her head, confused.

“The metal pyramid on the beach?”

“Oh, that bruck... It’s an ADCP package,” she explained into my ear, leaving me none the wiser. Not selkie tech then, unless Alex was a selkie, of course, come to check on her own beached skin.15

My bones shook in the wind again.

Another hour later and I had a better grip on the world. Under my aching palm, I felt the edge of a towering five-thousand-year-old standing stone. Together, we stood against a wind-torn loch and a neon dusk. Along the horizon a fluorescent twilight stretched, shifting through the spectrum from purple to deep blue. The wind still buffeted me but its teeth had been pulled; it no longer bit.

During the car journey home, Alex had translated her cryptic explanation of the silver pyramid. The metal tetrahedron was the protective housing for a marine measurement device used to monitor the tide energy site. It was a bit of local technology washed up on the beach that they would pick up and reuse. But “bruck” was a local dialect term that I was still trying to get a feel for.

“So, bruck is broken technology that you can repurpose?” I’d pressed her on the drive, trying to understand the word.

Alex had shaken her head, checked the time, then turned sharp right down towards the loch and pulled in beside three massive shards plunged into a field, a prehistoric stone circle known as the Stones of Stenness.

I ran my hand along the mica-fuelled edge of stone. It ran sharp from the grass up to the zenith, almost six meters high. Each of the three remaining stones in the circle seemed laser-cut: tall, thin trapezoids stabbed into the earth, Neolithic technology.

Alex stood next to me in the lea of the wind, her implacable gaze lifted skyward to the dusk-blue cloud. I saw the first star appear.

“Archaeologists say people brought these stones from different places around Orkney,” she explained. “They kinda reused their own stones to make the stone circle,” she said. “And to make their community, too. They had to work together to make the monument happen.”16

She glanced over at me, then past me. “Look,” she nodded. I followed her gaze and saw pale movement on the dim horizon: the wind turbines had started generating once more.

“We, sort of, work together to reuse our air—and the sea—to make our energy.” She paused. “Stone, sea, metal on the beach. It’s all bruck, really. Using what you have to keep going.”

She started to point out some of the wind turbines on the hills: who owned them, who benefited from them. “Making our own energy makes our communities.”

I ran my hand along the surface of the standing stone, watching it glitter in the twilight—reflections that had been started by determined people five millennia ago.

“Making energy so you can live here for another five thousand years?” I asked, playing with the idea.

“Maybe,” she agreed. “You have to work at the future, here. You can’t take it for granted. Not up here. Just living somewhere like Orkney goes against the economics.” She shook her head. “We have to make do, work around—the regulations, finances, weather.”

She seemed reflective, so I tried asking, “What happened with that electricity contract you didn’t meet?”

Alex stepped back a little towards the centre of the circle, smiled. “The people who make the regulations obviously don’t live in a windy place,” she said, and winked.17

She left me, then, to wander around the stones, alone as the twilight dimmed and the clouds and the loch went black.

I stood in the centre of the circle, surrounded by time and by innovation that had the tenacity to stay: the circle of stones, the wind turbines, the distant tide machines.

I clicked on my torch and stared into each stone under the beam. The mica crystals seemed to switch on and off as my hand wavered in the wind. I lowered my hood to let the cold air curl around my neck and shoulders, felt the scars burn on my palm. The mica reflections became tiny windows in skyscrapers beside a mirror-shaded sea. For a moment I was standing in a towering selkie city, monumental, risen from the water into the moonless night. Not a cyberpunk city, but a stormpunk city, for these were stormpunk islands: an archipelago determined to make do, to reuse the weather, to work around the rules, but most of all, to stay, to be here, to live together, for another five thousand years.

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