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Fairly Big Hydro

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On 7th January, BBC News carried an item about a large hydro-electric scheme in Scotland. Monday saw the completion of a major phase of the project, with breakthrough at the end of a 5-mile tunnel at Glendoe, near Fort Augustus, Loch Ness. The cameras were there to capture the moment as the 220 meter long boring machine, nicknamed ‘Eliza Jane’ by local schoolchildren, emerged blinking into the daylight after 18 months.

My initial reaction was one of great surprise, a real “Wow! Where was that hiding?” moment, and I know I’m not the only one. Glendoe is the largest ongoing civil engineering project in Scotland, which when completed will have an installed capacity of about 100MW, producing around 180 million units of green electricity in a year of average rainfall. Its flexibility will help to meet major fluctuations in power demand, with the ability to start generating electricity at full capacity in 30 seconds. When operating at maximum capacity, Glendoe will be able to generate enough electricity to power Glasgow, almost 250,000 homes.

OK, pretty small beer in comparison with, say, China’s Three Gorges project, but this is Scotland’s second largest conventional hydro-electric station and the first large-scale station to be built since 1957. The fact that it’s remained largely unpublicised says a lot about the media and about how Scotland is seen by the rest of the United Kingdom.

It’s fair to say that the film crews only turned up because it was a telegenic event. Once the breakthrough was captured on video, there was very little about the wider project, just a quick interview with a suit and a hard hat, then up, up and away. Another factor in deciding newsworthiness was that the project has been remarkably free of controversy. In England, a proposal involving a 75 square kilometer reservoir formed by a dam 1 kilometer long and 35 meters high would have been bogged down in protest and bureaucracy for years. Scotland, being a relatively unpopulated country, has fewer constraints, and Glendoe has been welcomed by local environmental groups. This from the Scottish and Southern Energy website:

SSE is committed to minimising negative effects on the local environment. The land which will form Glendoe’s reservoir is ‘degraded’ peat bog, meaning it is a peat area which has already been changed by man and has limited biodiversity – because of this Scottish Natural Heritage approved the use of the site for the reservoir.

With all the main components of the hydro scheme being underground, the dam and reservoir are the main structures that will be visible (yet they cannot be seen from any home or public road). In addition, the area around the reservoir is used only for sporting purposes and is not particularly popular with hillwalkers.

If Heathrow Airport only had hillwalkers and “sporting purposes” to consider, we’d have had ten runways by now.

It’s clear that Glendoe’s remoteness within Scotland has enabled the project to proceed quickly and smoothly. Scotland’s isolation within the UK has made the whole thing a very well-kept secret, which is a shame because this is a real success story.

Glasgow Herald “The spark coming from our water”

Scottish and Southern Energy project information

Glendoe Hydro Scheme


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Written by Pete Smith

January 10, 2008 at 1:30 pm

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