FIRST Minister Alex Salmond has urged energy giant ScottishPower to double the size of Scotland’s biggest hydro power station, a move which he claims would create 1,000 jobs and “keep the lights on” across the UK.
ScottishPower has announced that it is undertaking a study into an expansion of its huge “hollow mountain” power plant at Ben Cruachan near Oban after a request by Mr Salmond.
Anti-wind farm campaigners and opposition parties last night said they hoped the move signalled a shift away from the controversial policy of turbines which have been springing up across Scotland’s countryside.
The project could require investment in the region of £600 million, but Mr Salmond said the move would mark “the renaissance” of hydro power development in Scotland, and together with 20 smaller projects approved since 2007 it could mean a third of Scotland’s electricity coming from water.
The plan was unveiled by the First Minister during a visit to a similar power plant in Spain which is owned by ScottishPower’s parent company Iberdrola.
He said: “The Scottish Government recognises the potential for future development at Cruachan and other similar proposals for hydroelectric storage, to contribute to a balanced mix of energy generation across Scotland. This could see hydro power generate up to one third of Scotland’s entire generating capacity in the next decade.”
He added: “Increasing pump storage capacity will strengthen Scotland’s balanced energy mix and in doing so it can also enhance security of supply right across Great Britain.
“With electricity regulator Ofgem forecasting a narrowing gap between English electricity generation capacity and peak demand, Scotland’s position as a net exporter to the rest of the UK is increasingly important to ensure security of supply across the network. It is clean, green, renewable Scottish electricity that will keep the lights on.”
Iberdrola, the Spanish group, has just upgraded the e1.2 billion complex near Valencia as it seeks to store and re-use more of the electricity being generated by wind farms at times when it is not needed. A similar upgrade at Cruachan would be a cost-effective way of harnessing Scotland’s renewables potential, according to Mr Salmond.
The First Minister, who arrived at the remote Spanish site by helicopter, accompanied by Iberdrola chairman Ignacio Galan, said that as a rule of thumb such developments cost around £1m per megawatt.
Cruachan currently has a generation capacity of 440MW and it is thought that could be extended to more than 1,000MW – enough to power almost one million homes. But Mr Galan made clear that ScottishPower is undertaking the feasibility study at the request of Mr Salmond and that the major project would not necessarily come to fruition. “If our engineers are looking at this it is because they believe there are chances it can work. But it’s very early stages,” he said.
The feasibility study will take around two years to complete, after which it would have be considered for planning consent.
Linda Holt, of anti-wind farm organisation Scotland Against Spin, said she hoped the announcement marked a shift away from wind turbines.
She said: “This rush to wind has been a complete failure. The EU recently voted against having binding renewable energy targets for 2020 and reduced its carbon emission target, because the excess of wind is producing such high prices.
“The move now is in one direction and the fashion for wind is changing as governments step away from this because it’s too expensive and doesn’t work, Alex Salmond knows that. ”
The move was also welcomed by Joss Blamire, senior policy manager at Scottish Renewables, who said it was a boost for all green energy sources in Scotland. “The strength of our renewables resource lies in the diversity of technologies we have available, and pumped storage hydro is a perfect example of that,” he said.
“Schemes like Ben Cruachan, as well as the proposed Coire Glas hydro scheme, allow electricity from other sources, including onshore wind, to be stored and released on demand when we need it most.”
And Scottish Conservative energy spokesman Murdo Fraser said: “It’s good to see the Scottish Government getting on board with something other than wind farms. But to suggest schemes like this will help keep the lights on in England is a laughable nonsense.”
How it works: Spectacular power station with a touch of 007 about it
The Ben Cruachan power station is a pumped-storage hydroelectric dam and power station in Argyll and Bute, and its spectacular setting has been used in such films as James Bond drama The World is not Enough.
Opened in 1965, it was the world’s first reversible pumped-storage hydro scheme. It is unique because the station is concealed within the hollowed-out rock of Ben Cruachan, which stands at 3,694 feet.
The main cavern houses four motor-generator sets capable of generating a total output of 440MW. More than 220,000 cubic meters of rock and soil were excavated during its construction.
Although Cruachan can operate like a conventional hydroelectric station, using run-off water collected by tunnels driven through the hills above Ben Cruachan and draining into the reservoir, the normal operating mode is pumped storage.
In this mode, generators are used as motors to drive the reversible turbines to pump water uphill from Loch Awe to the reservoir, using the relatively cheaper electricity available during periods of low energy demand, usually overnight. This ensures the station is always ready to meet peak demand during the following day.