By Toby SkinnerJuly 7th 2021

Shetlander Tom Wills has travelled the world working in marine energy. Now he’s in Shetland leading the world’s first tidal energy array.

Tom Wills has always found energy in the sea. Growing up in Bressay, the island that provides the shelter for Lerwick Harbour, he would sail, windsurf and surf in the chilly Shetland sea, obsessed with the winds and tides. Now, he’s the Offshore Manager for Nova Innovation, the company that has installed the world’s first tidal energy array in the Bluemull Sound between the North Isles of Yell and Unst, and is about to install their first Canadian turbine in Nova Scotia.

“My whole career has been about the sea,” says Tom, who was the president of the Glasgow University surfing and kitesurfing club while studying mechanical engineering there. He’s worked in marine energy ever since – first for wave energy company Aquamarine Power at the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, then as a wave and tidal energy consultant for Aquatera in South America, based mostly in Chile, where he met his wife Andrea.

“I’ve tended to go to places with waves and wind. It’s great to be back home and working at the forefront of a new kind of renewable energy. We’re now making electricity from the tide reliably and are focused on bringing down the cost of generation. Tidal energy has the potential to be a really important energy source, and it’s exciting that Shetland is at the centre of that.”

Tidal energy has the potential to be a really important energy source, and it’s exciting that Shetland is at the centre of that.

Like many sea-facing Shetlanders, Tom is well-travelled. He spent part of his sixth year in Sweden while at Lerwick’s Anderson High School and did a year of his engineering degree in Bordeaux, taking all of his lessons in French. He also completed a Master’s degree in marine and coastal engineering in Norway. While working for Aquatera, he spent six months in Singapore and Bali, learning Indonesian while Andrea did forestry conservation work (he also speaks fluent Spanish).

But the pull of home has always been powerful – especially since Tom and Andrea had a son, Benji, in 2018. “The longer I was away, the more I realised how special Shetland is, and the quality of life you can have here,” he says. “It’s such a great place to bring up kids.”

During lockdown, the young family lived with Tom’s parents in Bressay. Tom’s father Jonathan is a well-known Shetland journalist, author, broadcaster and politician, while his mother Lesley worked for 40 years as a teacher and manager in the local education authority. Tom and Andrea now have their own house on Bressay, looking over the water to Lerwick.

Like his parents, Tom is interested in making a difference in Shetland. While he’s not blind to the challenges facing the islands, he sees opportunities first and foremost. “Getting to net zero carbon emissions is a global challenge” he says. “But we’ve got a chance to lead here, and to develop a clean energy industry that creates jobs and eliminates fuel poverty. We need to make sure that our community benefits from the changes that are coming.”

Getting to net zero carbon emissions is a global challenge. We’ve got a chance to lead here.

The Bluemull tidal array, which currently consists of four underwater turbines, is already delivering energy to the grid and is linked to a Tesla battery and electric vehicle charge point. With two more turbines to be installed over the next year, the challenge is now to keep improving the technology and bring costs down. While tidal energy turbines are currently relatively expensive to install and maintain, they have certain advantages. They are hidden, have minimal ecological impact and rely on a natural force that’s as regular as clockwork.

Shetland life is similarly reliable, and Tom sees a lot of his life and career as stemming from the opportunities he had growing up in Shetland. “I was so lucky. The education here is great, and you just have so much freedom. The more I travelled, the more I realised how much we have to be grateful for here.”

These days, he doesn’t get out surfing as much as he used to, but he still looks out for big swells around the islands. “There’s so much to do and so much going on up here,” he says. “Shetland can look isolated on a map, but you don’t feel isolated, partly because the community is so tight-knit. It’s an amazing place to be.”

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