Hydro power: coming to a mountain near you. Should you be worried?

Posted by Tom Hutton on 16/09/2013
Water: a readily available resource in the mountains of North Wales
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A rash of new hydro developments has appeared in and around the Snowdonia National Park, and more are on the way. Hill walkers and climbers should be watching, writes Tom Hutton

At a BMC Cymru/Wales meeting at South Stack in June last year, someone joked that we’d spent more time talking about energy production than we had climbing, mountaineering or hillwalking; should we change our name?

Most of the discussion had been about wind farms, particularly in mid Wales, and the whole problem seemed a long way away from the mountains of northern Snowdonia.

But concealed deep within the forest of turbines navigated through that night was the first mention of a different kind of energy development that would affect the mountains of the national park: hydro. The project in question was the proposed pumped storage scheme in Glyn Rhonwy, above Llanberis, but apart from perhaps the loss of a few climbs on the quarried slate, there appeared, at first, little to be concerned about. Only a small minority raised concerns.

But fast forward just over twelve months and the situation in North Wales is very different. A rash of new hydro developments have appeared around the national park. Cause for concern? Or just sensible use of a readily available resource?

Energy targets

Let’s start by looking at the bigger picture. Britain is legally bound to get 15% of its total energy from renewable sources by 2020. In 2012, renewables generated just 4%. It doesn’t take a calculator to see that we’ve got a long way to go. So when you look at how many wind turbines it’s taken to get this far, it’s plain to see that we won’t hit this target with wind alone. A case for hydro perhaps?

But that’s only part of the picture. Like them or not, renewables are unreliable. The wind doesn’t always blow and the rain that feeds our rivers and streams doesn’t always fall. Now this isn’t such a big problem if the contribution made is a small one: the grid has enough backup in place to cope with a little intermittence (this is essential to cope with a surge in demand or the outage of a power station for example). But if the renewables contribution becomes a significant one, which it would have to be to meet that target, then things need to change.

This is where pumped storage comes in: water is pumped up the hill in times of plenty e.g. when the wind's blowing, and then it’s let down again, via a hydro generator when it’s not. Just like a giant battery. The best-known example of this is the Dinorwig Power Station, commonly known as the Electric Mountain, in Llanberis.

So if hydro will produce green electricity and pumped storage is going to help us reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, what is there not to like?

The devil is in the detail, or perhaps the lack of detail, in the case of Glyn Rhonwy. The scheme has now received planning approval from Gwynedd Council and the rhetoric reads great: green energy, local jobs, the flooding of old eyesores, barely visible once completed etc etc. But dig a little deeper and it’s easy to see why a few eyebrows are being raised.

What's in a name?

The name suggests that the development will be in Glyn Rhonwy, an ill-fated, under-performing industrial estate on the outskirts of Llanberis. But most of it will actually be on the slopes of Cefn Du, an outlying foothill of the Snowdon massif. It’s prime hill walking territory and offers great views over Moel Eilio to Snowdon and up the Llanberis Pass to Glyder Fawr.

The situation is complicated. The planning application for the development has come from the Quarry Battery Company, venture capitalists specialising in finding quarries appropriate for pumped storage. They won't actually be building the scheme, they have simply produced the plans and submitted them for approval – now the application has been approved, the planning permission will be sold.

Mountaineering Instructor, Garry Smith, of Get High, based in Fachwen, near Llanberis, takes up the story. “More than anything it’s the disingenuous nature of the application that bothers me.”

“Despite assurances to the contrary, the scheme will actually create an eyesore that will be seen from miles around. And also that the application doesn’t even include connection to the grid, which will almost certainly involve pylons – possibly spoiling one of the most iconic views in the National Park."

"Worse still, when asked about this, the stock answer from the Quarry Battery Company, is that underground connection has been budgeted for.”

“This,” Garry explains, “is a lie.”

“Nothing has actually been budgeted for, nothing needs to be budgeted for at this stage; this is simply a planning application. A separate application altogether will need to be made for connection to the grid at Pentir, and this is unlikely to be refused once the scheme is up and running. With underground connection costing upwards of eight times as much as over ground, it’s unlikely to be the preferred option.”

Other criticisms levelled at the scheme include the total lack of transparency in the planning process, making it almost impossible for concerned parties to get information and make their feelings known. And many also feel that it has absolutely nothing to do with being green and everything to do with making money. The power produced will sell for a much higher price than power produced by conventional power stations, so the Quarry Battery Company will be looking for a big return on their investment.

Inside the National Park

Glyn Rhonwy is of course outside the national park and it was perhaps predictable that the undemocratic planning policies of Gwynedd Council were never going to let the concerns of the outdoor fraternity override a good money spinner. But at least this couldn’t happen inside the park boundaries. Or could it?

It is. In some of the most popular hillwalking terrain in Britain. The biggest of these developments is in Cwm Llan, on the southeast flanks of Snowdon, alongside the beautiful and extremely popular Watkin Path. The land is owned by the National Trust and the scheme is one of a number of renewable energy developments Europe’s largest conservation organisation is currently involved in.

Again the principle isn’t all bad. It’s a small scheme which when finished should blend reasonably well into the landscape and, according to NT’s own blurb, produce enough power ‘to supply all of the electricity needs of every mansion and house we manage in Wales’.

Except, once again, it doesn’t really work like this and the power produced will in fact feed into the National Grid, earning the NT a pretty hefty profit from those inflated renewable feed-in tariffs mentioned above. So back to money again.

Keith Jones, Environmental Advisor for the NT, explains: “As Europe’s largest conservation charity we are committed to looking after our great places and ensuring that they can be enjoyed forever for everyone."

"Lovers of the Welsh countryside will recognise that this welcome project can help fund more of the charity’s work in Snowdonia where we have a proud record of investing in footpath repairs, invasive species removal and habitat management.”

For a good cause

In other words this development is for the ‘greater good’ and lovers of Snowdonia should approve. But where was the consultation? Neither members nor other interested parties such as hill walkers and climbers have had a say.  

When the Trust bought the estate back in 1998, it did so under the auspices of protecting Wales’ highest mountain from inappropriate development. It sought donations in order to raise the £3m required. Fifteen years on, it’s the charity itself that’s driving the diggers and manning the drills.

Okay, the money may be for a good cause but on the mountain it’s difficult to see the distinction between development to fund conservation and development to line shareholders’ pockets. A weir is a weir and an access road is an access road. Perhaps if the hill-going community had been involved in the decision-making, they’d take more ownership of it and be less suspicious. After all, the Trust does help look after eleven of Snowdonia’s fifteen highest peaks.

We spoke to Huw Jenkins at the Snowdonia Society for his view and whilst he hadn’t actually seen the scheme at Hafod y Llan, he had positive things to say about some others.

“As a rule we love small scale hydro and I’ve personally visited an absolutely fantastic one at Plas Tan y Blwch and another on a farm above the Conwy Valley.”

Interestingly though, the Society opposed the development at Glyn Rhonwy. 

More to come

At the time of writing we are aware of a handful of other schemes in various stages of development, ranging from a community-led project in the northern Carneddau to two smaller ones on the flanks of Elidir Fawr. There have also been rumours of others, yet to reach planning, in the Llanberis Pass.

We’ve also heard that land agents have been actively knocking on farm doors in the area and buying up the rights to potential schemes. Worrying but not totally surprising.

On the morning I started this article I took a walk up Cefn Du to see the site of the proposed Glyn Rhonwy development for myself. It was a gloomy morning and mist hung low on Moel Eilio and totally obscured views up to Carnedd Ugain and Snowdon. Yet the gorse and heather of late summer were in full bloom, creating a vibrant atmosphere.

The colossal remnants of the area’s industrial past are all too obvious, yet nature seems to have reclaimed much of it.  It has the fatigued grace of someone that has seen bad times but is doing alright. If it could speak it would probably ask to be left alone.

As climbers, mountaineers and hill walkers we are better-placed than most to see the need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. And most of us realise that compromises need to be made to safeguard our futures. But we also see it as our responsibility to try and protect the landscapes we treasure.

Sacrificing the beauty and tranquillity of special places like Cefn Du and Cwm Llan for just small gains in power is never going to be an easy nut to swallow. Opaque planning processes and a lack of consultation don’t make it any easier. Neither does the fact that others seem to be making big profits from our losses.

What do you think? To discuss issues affecting the mountain and crag landscape in North Wales, come along to the next BMC Cymru North Wales Area Meeting. Find out more info here.

This article is part of BMC on Foot, a push to raise awareness of the BMC’s work for hill walkers and its stance on a range of topical issues affecting hill walkers. Please help us by completing our hill walking survey

For updates on the BMC's hill walking work, interesting links, and what's what in the world of walking, follow BMC Walk Talk on Twitter.

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1) Anonymous User
17/09/2013
All very well to complain about inadequacies in the consultation process, but this bit really removes any credibility from the article: "The colossal remnants of the area’s industrial past are all too obvious, yet nature seems to have reclaimed much of it. It has the fatigued grace of someone that has seen bad times but is doing alright. If it could speak it would probably ask to be left alone." Emotive bullsh1t. Much better to build our energy supplies well away from the beautiful places where there's no mountains.... oh wait. Perfect NIMBYism.

About making money - when has anyone ever built infrastructure out of the goodness of their heart? In this world, money is about the only thing which motivates people to do anything, especially when it involves investing hundreds of thousands. If we need new energy supplies, money is the only way to get them built. Plenty of people recognise that we need renewable energy sources, but not one of them would just charitably donate their hard earned to see them built. This is just how capitalism works.

2) Anonymous User
17/09/2013
Each case needs to be taken on its own merits - there will be good examples which most of us would approve of and there will be others! Organisations like the National Trust have some difficult decisions to make and I think I'd generally back their judgement in these matters - after all if they can't afford to protect their properties because their coffers have run dry then that would represent a massive failure on their - and indeed our collective part. As to the planning process being undemocratic, I think that is unfair. It's not perfect but the great majority of us simply don't engage with it - that's our choice - made through lack of time and sufficient interest. We expect environmental protection organsiations to do some of this monitoring work on our behalf but again we need to support them through donations and giving our time - volunteering our time doesn't have to be for doing practical conservation work or helping out as a vlunteer guide to a house or property - each ofg us has particular skills that we could offer up.
3) Anonymous User
17/09/2013
emotive rubbish. there are countries who survive on mostly renewables alone. no alernatives provided by BMC. renewables yes please just not here, there or anywhere. we all agree something should be done but dont do anything where the environmental resource is! you should engage and seek and help not sit back, wait and complain. the world is changing and its our fault. help make it a better place or get out of the way. do something positive or we wont be here to enjoy the mountains.
4) Anonymous User
18/09/2013
As the writer is concerned with the finances of renewables, are they aware that the polluting fossil fuel industry receives 12 times the subsidy levels that clean renewables receive? How does the writer feel about us subsidising our environmental destruction?
http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-07-29/fossil-fuel-subsidies-are-12-times-support-for-renewables-study-shows.html

"like them or not renewables are unreliable - the rain that feeds our streams and rivers doesn't always fall".
Snowdonia receives well over 2 metres of rain a year. Which coincides when we need energy the most - when the days are shorter and colder. The "weak" point in terms of hydro generation is in summer when our energy needs are less. The only unreliable part of this is the writers assertions.

Mike Kirwin
Volunteer
micro hydro association
5) Anonymous User
18/09/2013
Just wondering why the author of this piece has chosen to ignore the two years plus of regular community meetings and consultations about the National Trust hydro, and the thousands of walkers who have taken advantage of the Trusts' QR codes on the mountain to find out more and comment on the scheme - that sounds like consultation to me - and it sounds like those genuinely interested hill walkers who actually walk there have had their chance to speak.
6) Anonymous User
18/09/2013
Interesting article but not very balanced or factually correct. Has the author been up the mountain in the last few weeks? The access track has gone and to quote the author "nature is reclaiming it" Is the author pro unsustainable energy or just against renewables?
7) Anonymous User
19/09/2013
Is linking this huge scheme in Llanberis and the Cwm Llan one because they've both got hydro in the project title a bit like likening jumbo jets and song birds because they both fly?
8) Anonymous User
22/09/2013
What a terrible article. BMC, you should be embarrassed to have this emotional drivel on your website. Does no-one check articles for bias or factual correctness before publication? Why is the author's opinion stated as fact? Who is Garry Smith, and why has he been interviewed for this article when he does not understand the subject matter? I could go on but I feel there's no point.
9) Anonymous User
24/09/2013
Oh dear BMC. Hope this is just a blip in your views. Get your facts right and cut the drivel. I expect better. We need renewables and you should help! lets not mention this view on renewables again shall we?
10) Anonymous User
25/09/2013
What on earth is the author going on about? Romantic, opinionated, emotive, rubbish. Some factual research would have made a nice addition. Think that a chat with 'his mate' Garry does not count as research. Come on...
11) Anonymous User
26/09/2013
I was under the impression that Quarry Battery has been canvassing opinions since 2011. They've written to most (if not all) likely interested parties for discussions (of which only the smallest percentage replied directly) and held a large public consultation over the space of 2 days.

QB were asking for feedback and opinion before they had any formal designs, and were still canvassing opinion for genuine design guidance when they had three designs in mind, with a view to selecting the least contentious/most popular. The consultation process included mocked-up views from over 10 locations in the area showing the visual impact too.

There was also an extensive Environmental Impact Assessment produced covering the visual, ecological, heritage, geological and hydrogeological impact (all available on the planning portal or simply by asking the planning authority).

This is how the planning process works. However you must actively get engaged to have a say, just as the proposed developer has to actively engage to try and get permission for their development.

In terms of the consideration of cost for the buried cable, yes, this will have been considered. Because to sell any going concern (as the author states QB intend to do) there must be an accurate preliminary construction estimate and timescale. Otherwise you cannot know the value of the asset being sold. Whether the purchasing company who actually builds the thing does that is another matter. Perhaps that would be worth petitioning the council about?

Of course there's also the impact of the temporary works (haul roads etc), in my view this is significantly greater than the permanent works. But it at least has the benefit of being something which will be gone in a relatively short period.

I can't decide if I'm pro or anti (pro on principle, anti in a nimby way), but at least I did my homework and when I make my decision it will be informed.
26/09/2013
In any discussion or argument that concerns deeply held ideas, beliefs and interests it is usually axiomatic that differing viewpoints and interpretations will be respected, thus ensuring measured debate resulting in outcomes that interested parties might therefore come to some sort of understanding. It does seem, judging by the comments that have so far been posted in response to Tom Hutton's article, that on this forum this particular avenue of exploration is no longer valid. Only one of the 'comments' so far, is attributable, and the others all seem to be very 'one-sided' and at times bordering on abusive. To describe an honest attempt to understand a decision by Gwynedd CC as 'Romantic, opinionated, emotive, rubbish" or "Emotive bullsh1t" (stet) or "in this world, money is about the only thing which motivates people to do anything" or "Get your facts right and cut the drivel" seems close to opinionated, self-interested abuse. Far be it for me, as a non-scientist, non-technologically literate individual who cares about an historic, beautiful and unique landscape to have any opinion about energy developments in place we love, surely abuse and insults under the guise of anonymity merely reinforce the idea that this is decidedly dodgy development. Probably with intention of of making money for a few dodgy 'capitalists' with full support of a blinkered CC, and the highly dubious promise of "200 jobs"; which seems pretty unlikely. And why was the proposal deliberately pitched at 0.1 MW below the need for National Planning? Of course, that cannot be surmised as being suspicious in any way, because it would mean standing the way of forward thinking progress! And once this wonderful, 200 local employee, facility is working, how will the electricity be fed into the National Grid? Exactly who benefits? Given the lamentable state of national energy planning in this country, it does appear, without resorting to abuse or insult, that this is a speculative venture of dubious providence.
David Dear
BMC Member
13) Anonymous User
27/09/2013
David - You seem very suspicious of people who don't agree with your viewpoint.

The words the commenters are using are not abusive, they're descriptions of the article, corrections of factually incorrect elements within it, and individual opinions on its content: The article *is* very emotive and romantic (which it shouldn't really be, as it is attempting to address a serious issue, not be a piece of artistic literature), and it is "rubbish"/"drivel"/"bullsh1t", in my (and many others') opinion, because it is very poorly researched and factually incorrect. Mine is the "Anonymous" comment from 22/9/2013 by the way - I'm not ashamed, I just didn't think my name was relevant at the time. None of the comments is a personal attack on the author, any other person or group of people, or a nit-pick about the spelling, grammar etc. of the article, all of which could be classified as "abuse" - they only address the content of the article, just as comments should. Perhaps the comments seem unfairly weighted against the author because most climbers, walkers and mountaineers love the outdoors, so they are more concerned about the long-term welfare of the planet they live on than they are about having renewable developments in their Back Yard.

"And why was the proposal deliberately pitched at 0.1 MW below the need for National Planning?" - if this is indeed true, then it is probably because another stage of planning is costly in both time and money. Most companies have given up on trying to build any kind of renewable developments in the UK because the process is such a nightmare. We should be glad that some of them will still fight through it and build here. Yes, they make money from it - we live in a capitalist country, so unfortunately that's how it works - but they are also slowing the rate at which we burn the precious few fossil fuels we have, making our air cleaner and hopefully stopping the slow-down of thermohaline circulation in the North Atlantic which could send the UK into an ice age, if scientists are correct. So as for "who benefits" - the company who buys the planning permission, certainly, but also everyone else and their ancestors.

Amy Romijn
Eco-friendly climber ;)
14) Anonymous User
01/10/2013
I don't know why a comment I left which shared Tom's concerns was never published while at the same time, those of his critics don't appear to have suffered the same censorship? Perhaps the private companies have a mole in the BMC in the shape of its moderator !

John Appleby-North Wales.
15) Tim Waterhouse (staff comment)
01/10/2013
John - all comments submitted are shown here and as you see none have been deemed to have broken the house rules. Feel free to try submitting your comment again. If you register on the site first then it will appear immediately.
16) Anonymous User
01/10/2013
Right....as my first comment appeared to have disappeared into the ether,once more with feeling. I share Tom's concerns as like him, I'm generally supportive of the appropriate application of renewables but unlike the naive Guardianista view-which is in evidence here- I'm also aware of its limitations and the easy profit motive which attracts some pretty shabby players in the renewable field. More especially in the field of wind power which sees mostly foreign energy corporations gathering like Gadarene swine to get their snouts in the foaming subsidy trough. Hydro Power might not offer the same devastating impact on the landscape and ecosystems that wind power plants do but sited in inappropriate sites like Cwm Llan, then that impact has to be seen as detrimental to the upland environment. I don't buy the argument that the environment is already degraded by historical developments such as quarrying.Apart from the fact that many of these sites are naturally regenerating as habitats, I can't see that just because we had no concept of protecting the environment in days gone by then we should exploit that ignorance in the present day through these new developments. Of course, the idea that these developments will contribute either to our energy needs or towards reducing our co2 emissions is risible. It's all about profits at the end of the day.

john appleby-north wales
17) Anonymous User
02/10/2013
john appleby: "Of course, the idea that these developments will contribute either to our energy needs or towards reducing our co2 emissions is risible." Yet more opinion stated as fact. Please expand and provide some evidence for this statement!

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