Tuesday, 22 August, 2017: John o'Groats to Kirkwall


John Chivers' Zero DSR electric motorcycle at Scrabster.

The mainland part of the trip done, everything from here felt like a bonus, although my plan was still to get to Skaw on Shetland, as it had been from the outset, so the challenge was still very much there, as far as I was concerned. Today, I was back to an early start, as I had a small journey to make to Scrabster to catch the ferry to Stromness on Orkney.

Ron was acting as waiter for my early breakfast, but aside from his occasional trips in to deliver coffee or toast, he left me to it. I was ready for the off at 07:00 and headed off at 07:11 on a dry but cloudy morning. The road to Thurso, the A836, was rather unsurprisingly quiet and the journey uneventful. I did pass a turn-off for another UK extremity, Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on the UK mainland, but I didn’t have time to head up there and wasn’t really concerned to do so. I suppose I could have started from Lizard in Cornwall and included the most southerly point on the UK mainland to the most northerly point on the UK mainland too, but Land’s End to John o’Groats is the long-established traditional trip between the UK mainland’s two extremities, and in any case, Skaw would top Dunnet Head as a northerly destination.

Taking the A9 out of Thurso, I was at Scrabster by 07:43 in good time to make the crossing.

As I pulled up to the dock and the check-in point and greeted the staff member behind the desk, he pre-empted me giving him my name or any reference.

“Hello, Mr Chivers.”
“Mr. Chivers, yeah. There can’t be many bikes then.”
“No, you’re the only one this morning.”

I pulled up, first one there, and once instructed, rode onto the ship. Unlike my usual ferry crossings to mainland Europe on the Harwich to Hook of Holland route, where you have to secure your own bike, the Northlink folk secure the bike for you and I have to say I was quite impressed at the care they took. They were very intrigued by the bike and asked me about it.


Rounding Hoy on the Scrabster to Stromness ferry.

One aspect of the Zero which is an easy thing to overlook is that the lack of gears means that there is no built-in means of locking the wheels. On a standard petrol bike, you can just leave the bike in gear and know that it won’t move forwards or backwards. This has never been an issue to date with the Zero, but for my ferry crossings I came prepared with a brake lever lock, which held in and locked the front brake lever and achieved the desired effect of not letting the bike move forwards or backwards.

Once the bike was secured, I made my way upstairs to the lounge deck and found a seat for the crossing. I didn’t move around too much during the crossing. The weather outside wasn’t ideal and I was more interested in planning what I was going to do during the morning, as I’d arranged to meet up with an Orcadian resident at midday, so had some time to kill.

Between an information leaflet and the historical sites listed on my satnav, I managed to string together a few places to visit before I reached Kirkwall. The crossing was otherwise smooth and uneventful, and at just after 10:15, I was disembarking at Stromness on Orkney: the first time I had set foot (or indeed wheel in this case) on the island.


Unstan chambered cairn on Orkney mainland.

It transpired that the first place I visited was nothing at all. Down a back street on the edge of Stromness, it was behind the Stromness Academy, but had been listed on the Garmin database as a sight. It was a ‘sight’, but not an especially inspiring one, comprising concrete foundations, tarmac, and a couple of bungalows. I moved on.

My next stop was more interesting. Unstan chambered cairn is a Neolithic round chambered cairn, around 5,000 years old and was constructed as a communal burial place. It is positioned in a quite unassuming place, down the end of a small path by a house.

I parked up at the end of the pathway and took a walk down to the cairn. The cairn was sealed from access by a closed gate, but it was possible to peer into the cairn. It’s a strange thought that this small, unassuming mound predates several world civilisations, including of course any notion of Britain or its surrounding islands as part of a unified country.

I left the cairn and headed east again, this time a short distance to see another couple of Orkney’s ancient landmarks: the Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar.

With what sounds like veritable bet-hedging, or possibly in these more litigious times, sensible self-protection from any potential legal action, the Standing Stones of Stenness are dubbed as probably the oldest henge in the British Isles. Indeed, they are the Carlsberg of henges.


Standing Stones of Stenness on Orkney.

Now, I like a good henge, and these stones are certainly something to behold. Again, one can only imagine what these stones have witnessed through the millennia as generation after generation has found different significance in them. All the more tragic that they were almost destroyed in the early 19th century when a certain Captain Mackay, who had purchased land around the stones decided that he would remove them, as they were attracting visitors onto his land. He was stopped, but not before he had smashed the Odin stone, which had been used traditionally for couples to pledge engagements through a hole its centre.

It brings to mind those religious fundamentalists who have destroyed priceless artefacts like the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan or the cultural heritage laid to waste even more recently by ISIS. Such small-minded barbarism, destroying antiquities which predate by centuries but fall victim in moments to the whims of religious extremists or selfish landowners!

The nearby Ring of Brodgar is an even larger henge in diameter, the third largest in the British Isles, and once comprised 60 stones of which 27 remain today.

By the time I’d arrived at these locations, they were already surrounded by coach tours of people and I didn’t stay around too long. If I were to do these sites justice, they’d need a great deal more time than I had available, but catching a glimpse and taking some photos was good enough for me on this occasion.


View across Loch of Harray on Orkney.

My next stop was a short distance along again on the parallel road across the Loch of Harray, Stoneyhill Road, and afforded a wonderful view across the loch. I took some landscape photos and then decided that, as time was pressing on, it was time to head to Orkney’s capital, Kirkwall, for my planned meet-up with fellow EV advocate, Jonathan Porterfield.

Jonathan runs Eco Cars, an Orkney-based electric car dealer, originally from Leicestershire, who, although based on Orkney, works on a national basis and has driven electric cars from and to all over the mainland on countless occasions. Jonathan, together with Chris Ramsey of Plug In Adventures, became the first to drive an electric car from John o’Groats to Land’s End and back in 2015 in the Nissan LEAF, at the time beating the existing time for the trip from John o’Groats to Land’s End, so as well as meeting a fellow EV advocate, and one I knew through the community and social media, it was good to chat with a fellow End-to-Ender.


John Chivers with his Zero DSR electric motorcycle riding on Orkney.

He turned up in an electric Smart car and then asked me if I was ok to head over to the BBC, where he’d kindly arranged an interview with BBC Radio Orkney. I followed him, and in between dodging cruise ship tourists, we entered down a narrow driveway to the side of the BBC building, where we were met by a couple of BBC bods with some equipment to record a quick chat and an audio capture of the bike accelerating. I waffled on about the bike for a while and then Jonathan and I headed off to meet a few local garage mechanics, who were also quite interested in the bike, and also the proprietor of the nearby Orkney Roastery, who very kindly gave me a packet of their very good coffee.

From there, we headed to the HQ of the Orkney Surf’n’Turf project, which is working on harnessing Orkney’s abundance of renewable energy in the form of wind and tidal power to produce hydrogen by splitting off the hydrogen from the oxygen molecules in water in an electrolyser, releasing the latter back harmlessly into the atmosphere, and then transporting the hydrogen to Kirkwall, where, in a reverse process, it is fed to a hydrogen fuel cell, producing electricity for use on demand in Kirkwall Harbour and heat as a by-product for local buildings.


Jonathan Porterfield with John Chivers and his Zero DSR electric motorcycle at Hammars Hill wind farm on Orkney.

As part of this project, Orkney College is concentrating on becoming a world-leader in training international participants on the use of hydrogen at sea. Hydrogen is of course an extremely dangerous and pernicious gas and the project is ensuring that Orkney’s expertise in this field will be second to none by perfecting seaworthy technologies initially on dry-land, with a longer-term view to deploying hydrogen fuel cells as fuel in shipping, which will revolutionise fuelling of ships and cut gargantuan amounts of pollution associated with shipping.

There are long-standing debates about the benefits of hydrogen fuel cells versus battery vehicles, and people who have a mindset which sees the future of personal transportation fundamentally routed in the 20th century model of car ownership are more easily able to relate to topping up their vehicle with a liquid fluid, and so many tend to imagine hydrogen as the obvious winner of the two.

But the reality is that while the promise of hydrogen fuel cells is long-standing, there are several disadvantages to using hydrogen in smaller vehicles, from the engineering tolerances required to safely store a large tank of fuel to the comparative inefficiencies of a hydrogen fuel cell when compared with a straightforward battery. Hydrogen is an energy storage mechanism and not an energy source in this context and, from a domestic perspective, the energy used to create the hydrogen in the first place would be better put into batteries.


John Chivers and his Zero DSR electric motorcycle at Hammars Hill wind farm on Orkney.

Nevertheless, hydrogen is a very good energy storage solution, and given the size of ships and the lack of a power supply into which they can readily plug themselves, HFCs would seem to make a very attractive means of fuelling future vessels.

While in Kirkwall, Jonathan also pointed out the island’s diesel electricity generators. Although Orkney produces more electricity through renewables than it can consume, there is no means for it to export excess electricity back into the national grid on the mainland.

The diesel generators have to be fired up periodically to ensure that they are still in working condition, should they be required. The project to convert the excess electricity to hydrogen will allow the island to harness this excess and store it, so hopefully it will not be too long until the diesel generators themselves become a mere relic of the past, even if they aren’t quite as picturesque as the island’s Neolithic monuments.


John Chivers' Zero DSR electric motorcycle at Hammars Hill wind farm, Orkney.

After speaking with some of the people involved in the Surf‘n’Turf project, we headed up the long and straight A996 towards the north of Orkney’s mainland island, where Jonathan shot some footage passing me and of me overtaking him and then we headed off-road, onto a gravel track and up to Hammars Hill wind farm, where, in an ideal location, five turbines produce 4.5MW of electricity for Orkney in a project which was locally financed and which provides an ongoing source of income for its investors. It was established in 2010 and generates in excess of 20 GWh of electricity for Orkney over the course of a year.

The view from there was stunning and somehow, despite all the wind noise, we managed to record a small, audible piece to camera by placing my phone in my bike jacket pocket to act as a wind shield and just speaking up. I was surprised by the reasonable quality of this recording.

From there, we headed back down to Jonathan’s house, where he kindly let me plug the bike in to charge using his home level 2 charger and he filmed a clip of the procedure. We then had a cuppa and a chat and I attempted to record an interview with him concerning his work as a pioneer and key player in the independent electric car dealership market.


John Chivers and his Zero DSR electric motorcycle at Hammars Hill wind farm on Orkney.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find the lavalier microphone I had packed and so was reliant on the camera’s audio, which sadly, at the distance it was positioned, was not especially loud, but it was nevertheless an enjoyable chat and it was interesting to hear the story of what led him to become probably the most widely known and foremost independent EV dealer in the community.

Later in the afternoon, he had a meeting scheduled in Kirkwall regarding a vehicle to grid solution under discussion and asked if I would like to attend. It was certainly of interest and so while the bike charged, we headed back into Kirkwall in his electric Smart car, which certainly impressed me. For a little car, it had some poke, but again, that is to be expected from vehicles powered by electric motors.

The meeting itself was quite an interesting meeting to attend.

Essentially, vehicle to grid is a concept which has been under consideration for some time and was in the minds of many automotive manufacturers in the design of their cars. Essentially, it involves using the car’s battery as an electricity storage device. On a small scale, this could be used in a single house to provide storage when energy production is high and cannot otherwise be used by the house: for instance, if solar panels are creating more electricity than is being consumed at a given time, the excess can be put into the car battery and then some of the car battery can be used when the supply drops off, for example in the evenings.

This is the same concept as the Tesla Powerwall (essentially a large, domestic battery) and other such battery storage solutions by the likes of Bosch. Nissan themselves had planned to launch a similar product, making use of reclaimed batteries from their Nissan LEAF vehicles when they had passed their useful working life in a car.


MSC Preziosa at dock at Hatston Pier in Kirkwall, Orkney.

A battery which has lost capacity in the high demand of an automotive environment could still provide many years of useful service as an energy storage device before it would be past its shelf life and would have to be recycled (and these batteries can be almost fully recycled).

It’s a rather strong testament that to date Nissan haven’t launched their energy storage product, because they haven’t had sufficient quantities of batteries whose capacity have fallen below the threshold which makes them practical for cars. They’re performing better seemingly than even Nissan expected in terms of durability.

The advantage of using a car for energy storage is twofold: it means that customers would have an added incentive to buy the car, because it would be serving an additional service and saving the owner money, and it also means that there would be no separate outlay required for a dedicated battery storage system. They have also already proven themselves in real-life disaster areas, where grid power has been lost and electric cars have been able to step in to supply emergency electricity.

The standard rapid charging standard on the Nissan LEAF, CHAdeMO, is designed to allow electricity import into the car and electricity export from the car, so the car is already set up for this purpose.

On a wider, national grid scale, the longer term idea, as adoption of electric vehicles increases, is to use the vehicles as part of a localised smart grid, which would allow individual owners to assign a certain percentage of their vehicle batteries for use by the grid as an energy storage solution in return for a fee or discount on their bills and thereby to decentralise supply from large power stations to communities, easing demand on large power stations and pushing it to local levels, whereby electricity transmission losses are also minimised.

Back to the meeting in Kirkwall, however, and the discussion involved trialling the vehicle to grid model out at Jonathan’s house, fed from a solar PV array. These were early discussions, but people seemed keen to push ahead. As is always the case, however, there is a great deal of preliminary work which needs to be done before the go-ahead. The meeting finished, we headed to a local restaurant for a meal.


John Chivers' Zero DSR electric motorcycle at Hatston ferry terminal, Kirkwall, Orkney.

Having enjoyed a very pleasant meal, we headed back to Jonathan’s and then it was time for me to head off, the bike fully charged by now. I packed everything away, togged up, thanked Jonathan for his time and hospitality, and headed off back towards Kirkwall (Hatston) ferry terminal to check in for the overnight crossing to Shetland.

I tend to like to get to places early when I’m travelling, but I was a little too early to the ferry terminal. It had turned a bit cold, so I took shelter beside the check-in point while I waited, accompanied by the hypnotic sound of the nearby wind turbine calmly doing its business.

For the life of me, I still don’t understand why people find wind turbines unpleasant and even this close, I can’t say I’d have been bothered living next to it: certainly far less noise than I’ve experienced from road noise - and a far less damaging process too.

MSC Preziosa provided additional entertainment. This four-year-old, huge cruise ship with 18 decks and a gross tonnage of 139,072 had been visiting Orkney and was departing before my ferry was due. The guests were being serenaded by a band and quayside entertainment which was pulling a number of clichés out of the bag.

In time, the ticket window opened, I checked in and I made my way along to the passenger terminal building, where we were to await the arrival of the ship from Aberdeen. This was quite a long wait, as check-in opened at 21:00 and the ship didn’t sail until midnight. Nevertheless, I watched the Preziosa sail off into the distance and otherwise kept myself occupied.

When the time came to board, I was quite relieved. I was tired and just looked forward to getting to my cabin and bed. I boarded the ship, the MV Hjaltland, which has played host to me on previous visits to Shetland, and the Northlink crew once again did a sterling job of securing the bike for the crossing. Then I made my way to my cabin, showered, transferred the day’s footage to disk, and then grabbed a good night’s sleep on a smooth crossing.

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