SEVERIN CARRELL, The Guardian, June 27, 2008
Scotland is planning a renewable energy revolution that would trump the ambitious strategy announced yesterday in London by Gordon Brown – and without building any nuclear power stations.
Brown’s UK-wide strategy sets out how the nation as a whole could reach a target of 30-35% of electricity being generated from renewables by 2020. But ministers in the devolved government in Edinburgh said Scotland will reach this target within three years, and by 2020 would be at 50%.
To help achieve this, more than 40 years since the last big hydroelectric dams flooded glens across the Highlands, Scottish ministers, power companies and land owners plan a new wave of hydro schemes, and claim it will provide a rich source of cheap, green power.
This summer, the government-sponsored Forum for Renewable Energy Development in Scotland is expected to call for scores of hydroelectricity schemes to be built, ranging from dams in northern glens to up to 100 projects harnessing power from rivers.
Next spring, the UK’s main hydroelectricity company, Scottish and Southern Energy, will switch on one of the largest green power plants being built in the UK – a 200MW hydro station buried in mountains at Glendoe near Loch Ness. Serviced by 10 miles of underground tunnels and a large dam, Glendoe will produce enough electricity to supply every house in Glasgow.
Four companies have been surveying the Highlands to find sites for other large hydro schemes, said Tom Douglas, a leading consultant with the engineers Mott MacDonald, and have been advised that up to a dozen hydropower stations could be built.
Separately, Scottish and Southern said it had identified three new sites in the Highlands able to generate up to 200MW in total, and is drafting plans for another new dam after Glendoe.
The hydropower will be sorely needed. Alan Ervine, professor of water engineering at Glasgow University, said rejecting new nuclear stations left ministers with a significant “black hole” to fill. Unlike English ministers, an SNP administration would not replace Hunterston B and Torness power stations once they close.
In 2006, the pair generated 26% of the 54 gigawatts of electricity Scotland produced, but SNP ministers will need to replace that, as well as hitting their 50% “green” power target, by 2020.
At present 12% of Scotland’s electricity is generated by the 70 or so existing hydroelectric dams.
Ervine believes this could nearly double, with dams capable of lasting for 100 years. “Hydro is a well-known technology,” he said. “It’s something we know how to do; we can power it up and do it effectively in Scotland, compared to the risk-taking which is involved with wind, wave and tidal turbines.”
Despite the intention to expand, power from the growing number of large new onshore windfarms will soon outstrip hydro. On Tuesday, ministers authorised two large windfarms able to supply 117,000 homes.
But in many areas of the Highlands, such as Perthshire, hydro is being embraced by anti-windfarm campaigners who are angry at the march of onshore wind turbines across the countryside.
Richard Barclay, a farmer and landowner in Perthshire, is installing a 1.4MW mini-hydro station on his local river. Enough to supply about 1,000 houses in nearby Kinloch Rannoch, it is a “run of river” scheme where the power plant is buried, using river water diverted via a weir and underground pipes, returning it downstream.
“It will fit very well into our local environment,” he said.
“Windfarms are much more controversial. Their visual impact is huge and the run of river scheme has no visual impact essentially because it’s underground. I haven’t met anybody who has a problem with mini-hydro.”
But other tensions are emerging. Strict European Union water quality and environment regulations make it more difficult to build hydroelectric schemes because of the potential damage to fish stocks, river habitats and water sports. But Martin Marsden, head of water policy at the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, which authorises hydro stations, said: “We recognise climate change is the biggest threat to the world, and we’ve no intention of undermining hydro.”
Jason Ormiston, chief executive of the Scottish Renewables Forum, said it was “entirely false” for anti-wind campaigners to believe that hydropower can replace onshore wind. “We have to be able to develop good projects whatever the technology as quickly as possible. We need hydro, we need wind, we need biomass, we will hopefully have wave and tidal,” he said.
Jim Mather, the Scottish energy minister, has described himself as “desperately enthusiastic” about hydro as part of a mix of energy sources. He said: “This is us as systems thinkers: to optimise the entire system called Scotland and not just maximise any one source of supply.
“We’re interested in developing a diverse renewable mix and Scotland has won the lottery of life in terms of on-shore wind, offshore wind, wave, solar, biomass, clean coal technologies, hydro and carbon storage.”