Powerful arguments on energy
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.