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?
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.
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