Pow­er­ful ar­gu­ments on en­ergy

The Oban Times - - Districts - Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­net.com

GREEN en­ergy is not new. Man has been us­ing fall­ing or fast-mov­ing water as a source of power for gen­er­a­tions. And why not?

It is usu­ally free, clean and in abun­dance on the West Coast. Al­though our fore­bears har­nessed it 2,000 years ago to turn wheels for grind­ing wheat and bar­ley into flour, it wasn’t un­til the 1800s that the first hy­dro- elec­tric schemes were built. The English Na­tional Trust claims that Crag­side, a prop­erty it owns near Roth­bury in Northum­ber­land, was the first build­ing in the world to be lit by hy­dro- elec­tric power. I be­lieve Brae­more in Ross-shire, built in 1867 by Sir John Fowler, who en­gi­neered the Forth Rail­way Bridge, has a bet­ter claim.

Other Vic­to­rian landown­ers soon fol­lowed with their own schemes un­til the 1943 Hy­dro Elec­tric De­vel­op­ment (Scot­land) Act kick-started the con­struc­tion of mas­sive dams and power houses flood­ing glens and even­tu­ally de­liv­er­ing elec­tric­ity through the Na­tional Grid (NG) to much of the High­lands and Is­lands.

To­day, hy­dro power pro­duces about 12 per cent of Scot­land’s elec­tric­ity re­quire­ment. Al­though the Scot­tish Govern­ment has set a 100 per cent green en­ergy tar­get for 2020, NG has warned that too much is al­ready be­ing gen­er­ated and that it could be forced to is­sue emer­gency or­ders to power plants to switch off. Wind-farm own­ers are paid mil­lions of pounds ev­ery year to close down when there is in­suf­fi­cient line ca­pac­ity to trans­port their elec­tric­ity to ar­eas where it is needed. NG may now have to pay own­ers of pri­vate hy­dro schemes to switch off be­cause the sys­tem has been swamped by green en­ergy and is not needed at all. With the cur­rent feed-in tar­iffs and a guar­an­teed long-term in­come, this might rea­son­ably be de­scribed as a win-win sit­u­a­tion in any man’s lan­guage. Does it make sense in the present eco­nomic cli­mate and will it put paid to mo­tor­ways in the moun­tains, or has Brexit done that?

The pri­mary ar­gu­ments against hy­dro power are en­vi­ron­men­tal and the in­tro­duc­tion of in­dus­trial build­ings in ar­eas where none pre­vi­ously ex­isted. Much could have been done to mit­i­gate wide­spread scar­ring of vir­gin hill­sides by us­ing he­li­copters to lift ma­te­ri­als into po­si­tion. Dams can al­ter the amount and qual­ity (eg, oxy­gen level) of water flow­ing down­stream which, in turn, af­fects plant life, rare fresh-water mus­sel beds, aquatic, bird and an­i­mal species. Mi­gra­tory routes, par­tic­u­larly for anadro­mous fish such as salmon that live in the sea but come up rivers to spawn, can be in­ter­rupted. The cre­ation of new dams also re­duces sed­i­ment and nu­tri­ment flows and low­ers the tem­per­a­ture of the water.

Clearly the coun­try needs power but se­ri­ous ques­tions are now be­ing asked why de­vel­op­ers are not means-tested be­fore qual­i­fy­ing for fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance and why lo­cal au­thor­ity coun­cil­lors are not call­ing more strongly for a ban on schemes which im­pact on the wider coun­try­side. Given their growth and the sen­si­tiv­ity of the land­scape in which hy­dro schemes are sprout­ing up, it seems pretty clear that a memo must have gone out from Holy­rood in­struct­ing plan­ners, Scot­tish En­vi­ron­ment Pro­tec­tion Agency and Scot­tish Nat­u­ral Her­itage, to turn a blind eye and to sac­ri­fice what was once held of na­tional im­por­tance, on the al­tar of the 2020 en­ergy tar­get.

As you read th­ese lines ne­go­ti­a­tions are tak­ing place to build two hy­dro schemes in Glen Ne­vis. Tom Weir, the late moun­taineer and tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity, led a suc­cess­ful cam­paign in the 1960s to stop the build­ing of a large hy­dro- elec­tric dam across the fa­mous Glen Ne­vis gorge and flood­ing the hin­ter­land – not be­cause he dis­liked water power, but be­cause he felt it in­ap­pro­pri­ate in such a fa­mous beauty spot.

Dr Michael Fox­ley, the for­mer leader of the High­land Coun­cil, has long cam­paigned to bring a re­al­is­tic re­turn to lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties from re­new­able schemes which give noth­ing back. On the ba­sis of the un­prece­dented rise and sud­den com­mer­cial in­ter­est in build­ing dams by hedge fund man­agers, ab­sen­tee landown­ers and other ex­ter­nal de­vel­op­ers keen to ex­ploit the nat­u­ral re­sources of the area, Dr Fox­ley and his col­leagues in the High­land Coun­cil came up with an an­nual fig­ure of £ 5,000 per gen­er­ated megawatt as a good­will con­tri­bu­tion vol­un­tar­ily do­nated by a de­vel­oper to a trust for the ben­e­fit of com­mu­ni­ties af­fected by de­vel­op­ment where this would have a long-term im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment. Few vol­un­teered other than Forestry Com­mis­sion Scot­land.

There is one as­pect of th­ese new schemes which the in­dus­try and the plan­ners have so far failed to ad­dress and that is the de­sign and sit­ing of tur­bine houses which are in full view of public roads and tracks. With one or two no­table ex­cep­tions, lit­tle or no at­tempt has been made to con­ceal th­ese drab lumps of con­crete redo­lent of Sec­ond World War pill boxes when, with some will­ing­ness, imag­i­na­tion and fore­thought, they could have been ei­ther buried un­der­ground or toned down us­ing lo­cal stone and slate. With a bit of in­ge­nu­ity, they could even have been made to look like old croft houses by giv­ing them rounded cor­ners.

If a real man cares about what’s on his feet, a hy­dro scheme de­vel­oper should care what’s at the end of his pen­stock.

Hy­dro de­vel­op­ers are ex­pected to make vol­un­tary con­tri­bu­tions to lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties where there are long-term im­pacts on the en­vi­ron­ment.

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