Renewable energies – Sloy hydro-power generation

To access Ben Vane (and other hills nearby, such as Ben Vorlich) we used the private access road that leads from Sloy Hydro Power Station to the dam containing Loch Sloy (reservoir). Sloy is a pump storage hydro power plant (160MW) meaning that at times of low electricity demand the station uses surplus electricity from the National Grid (that can’t be easily stored) to pump water from Loch Lomond, at a few tens of metres above sea level, to Loch Sloy (dammed) at around 300m altitude. At times of high electricity demand the likes of Sloy and other pump storage hydro power stations discharge the water from the higher elevation reservoirs through their turbines, thereby generating almost instantaneous energy to feed back into the National Grid. These types of power generation systems are ideal for helping to balance the fluctuating load on the electricity distribution network.

Sloy pump storage hydro power station on banks of Loch Lomond

Such renewable energy schemes do, however, have an impact on the environmental landscape that supplies their raw materials (water in this case). The environmental impacts, both positive and negative include:

  1. The dams containing the reservoirs;
  2. The pipes feeding the turbine generators;
  3. The power stations housing the turbine generators;
  4. The power transmission or distribution system;
  5. The service roads and infrastructure;
  6. The jobs that are generated, often in rural areas where higher-tech jobs are limited;
  7. The renewability of the power supply compared to fossil fuel alternatives.

    Sloy dam with Ben Vorlich in the background

Hydro-power generation systems are found throughout the Scottish Highlands and have generally been in-situ for many years: some pre-date WWII. In Scotland the first hydro electricity system was commissioned in 1896 when the British Aluminum Company set up an aluminum smelter at Foyers on Loch Ness. By 1965 about half of the Highland area’s estimated hydro-power potential had been realized.

High voltage transmission lines in glen above Inveruglas

So hydro-power in the Highlands isn’t a new phenomenon arising out of our present-day desire to reduce our dependence on fossil fuel based electricity generation and hence improve our carbon footprint. It has been a feature of and shaped the Highland landscape for over a century.

Personally, I marvel at the ingenuity of the engineering solution (as an engineer myself) and fortitude of the men who built the dams. Between the end of WWII and 1975 the Scottish Hydro-Electric Board was responsible for building over 50 major dams throughout the Highlands.

In this blog post are series of photographs taken today on our climb up Ben Vane. I’ll leave you to make up your own mind about what components of the generation of hydro-power may actually be aesthetically pleasing and which are a “necessary” but perhaps less than ideal components of our seemingly insatiable appetite for electricity.

High voltage distribution sub-system high above Inveruglas

It may be especially worth noting the photograph taken from the summit of Ben Vane, clearing showing the new green phenomenon of wind power! These wind farms are currently having the biggest environmental impact on the Highland scenery. I saw this today from Ben Vane, but also on our recent outing to Gulvain on 7 November, where a huge development was seen in the far distance to the NE of the summit.

Wind turbines obvious in landscape to the north from the summit of Ben Vane

I’ll endeavour to post more thoughts on renewable energy as we travel widely throughout Scotland. As such, I’ve set a new blog category on the website under the banner of “Environment”. Please feel free to post your comments and thoughts on the renewable “debate”.

About Cameron Speirs

Born and brought up in the Scottish Highlands, Cameron, has been interested in outdoor pursuits since he was a wee lad. Over the last few decades he has climbed extensively in the Italian Dolomites as well as summiting the Matterhorn and several other 4000m alpine peaks. Closer to home he has spent many wonderful weekends mountaineering and biking in Snowdonia, Cairngorms, Glen Coe, Skye and Lochaber.
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