Storing up solutions with pumped hydro

Could hydro power projects be the answer to providing reliable support to renewable energy sources in the future?

Clatteringshaws Loch reservoir in Galloway Forest Park damming the Black Water of Dee to feed Glenlee Hydro Power Station

The vast majority of Scotland’s future energy needs will be met by renewables. That’s positive – but there’s a problem.

Wind and solar power have not been fully exploited yet. We can’t guarantee when the sun will shine and the wind will blow. That means that sometimes we’ll have too much power for our needs and at other times we won’t have enough. We need back-up energy sources that kick in when nature isn’t cooperating.

The people at Intelligent Land Investments Group believe pumped storage hydro is one of the main answers to this problem. And the good news is that as well as providing reliable support for Scotland’s renewables, it seems that any new projects will provide plenty of opportunities for electrical contractors.

Turbines and tunnels

Ross McLaughlin, the firm’s technical adviser, explained how this well-established system works. “Pumped storage hydro involves two water bodies separated by height,” he said. “They’re connected via a series of tunnels, some of which have turbines, and the height difference is used to create power. When there’s excess power on the grid, you use that to pump water from the lower reservoir to the upper. Then, when you need increased power on the grid, you release the water through turbines and generate electricity.”

100 years of power

The company is so confident that this will play a vital part in Scotland’s future energy mix that it has applied to build three pumped hydro storage projects over the next 15 years. The first of these at Red John, Loch Ness, could receive planning permission later this year.

Mark Wilson, the firm’s chief executive officer, said: “There are already two pumped storage projects in Scotland – one at Cruachan, Oban, which has been in place since the 1960s, and another at Foyers that has been on the go since 1974.

“These systems have a lifetime of more than 100 years and they already provide 95% of the world’s energy storage capacity.”

Industry experts anticipate at least 5GW of pumped storage coming on stream in the UK by 2030. The Red John project will offer 450MW.

“Our planned three projects will have a combined capacity of 2GW and they will be a major contribution to carbon reduction by offsetting 2.5 million tonnes of CO2 emissions every year,” said Mark.

What’s more, it’s expected that the total investment required will be approximately £2.5 billion.

“A lot of money will stay in the country for engineers, electrical contractors and so on,” added Mark. “We’ve calculated that Red John alone would generate between £60 to £100 million worth of work for the electricity sector.”

Opportunities

Until now, a lot of the money used to create onshore and offshore wind projects has gone abroad. However, one major benefit of a pumped storage system is that approximately 70% of the capital cost is construction. Mark said: “As well as opportunities for external contractors, we believe the three projects will create 1,500 jobs.”

Mark believes that the changing face of the energy sector is good news for SELECT Members and others. He explained: “If I was a qualified electrician or engineer, I would be encouraged by the way things are evolving, with a rapidly expanding operational and maintenance (O&M) sector for onshore and offshore wind.

“Both Scottish Power and SSE have made renewables their sole focus so there’s a massive opportunity for ongoing O&M. An onshore turbine has a minimum 20-year lifespan and needs regular maintenance.”

What’s more, the Scottish Government supports the renewables switch, and, according to Mark, many others are in favour of using pumped storage hydro in the energy mix. He said: “Many storage systems out there require huge subsidies, but these don’t. They fund themselves.

“There’s a white paper coming out soon comparing different options and pumped hydro is by far the cheapest form of energy storage at the moment. It will be critical in the country’s journey to net zero and meeting climate challenges over the next couple of decades.

“At the moment we rely on interconnects from Europe to provide a percentage of our energy needs.

“That can be eliminated with the right number of pumped storage systems. I’ve no doubt that these projects can help give the country energy security.”

Finding the Right Sight

A pumped storage hydro project is a major undertaking and finding the right location is essential for all sorts of reasons.Mark and his colleagues worked with a global technical company to identify 150 potential sites for the three planned projects.

He said: “We did not want to pursue any project that had a negative impact on the environment.”

It’s hoped this thorough approach will pay off with consent for the Red John project this year. The other two sites will go forward to planning authorities at the end of 2020 with consent anticipated late in 2021 or in early 2022.

“After we get the go-ahead, each project will take five to six years to build,” said Mark.

Attenborough backing the bid

When you’re taking forward major projects it’s always good to get support from high profile figures, and Intelligent Land Investment Group has backing from the very top - none other than Sir David Attenborough.

Mark Wilson said: “I wrote to Sir David last year and told him about our plans. He took the time to write back and said that what we were doing was wonderful. He wished us great success and even said he would help us in any way he could!”

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