Snowdonia's power struggle: Is hydroelectric a threat to our landscapes?

Posted by Hanna Lindon on 27/05/2015
Diggers working at Cwm Glas. Photo by Ray Wood.

The controversial Cwm Glas hydro power development has put the spotlight on similar schemes within Snowdonia National Park. Should climbers and walkers be concerned?

If you’ve been walking or climbing in the Llanberis Pass recently, you might have noticed a dark scar on the steep sides of Cwm Glas. This brown scribble in a green landscape is the legacy of a controversial hydroelectric power (HEP) scheme that has provoked widespread unease among local walkers, climbers and activists. Planning permission was granted for the scheme on the basis that the entire length of the plastic pipe needed to deliver water to the energy-generating turbine was buried. Instead, the pipe was left exposed for months and work to cover it up has only just got underway.

“A roughly 150-200-metre length of plastic pipe has been left draped on the hillside all winter,” says climbing photographer and Snowdonian local Ray Wood. “Recently they’ve begun to dig a trench to bury it, and with the heavy April showers the run-off from the hillside has turned brown. When the outdoor sector is going to great lengths to reconcile conservation and recreation, it’s dispiriting to see a special and unique landscape ‘vandalised’ in this way.”

The march of hydropower

The Cwm Glas project isn’t the only HEP scheme to have taken root in Snowdonia. According to Aled Lloyd, Snowdonia National Park Authority’s head of development management and compliance, the NPA has considered between 120 and 130 such schemes over the past three years or so, approving around 70 of those. Advantageous tariff feeds set by the Welsh government combined with Snowdonia’s topography and the availability of suitable water courses has made the national park a prime target for HEP investors. 

Snowdonia NPA is generally supportive of HEP schemes within the park boundary, with Lloyd calling them “a means of providing clean, renewable energy with little long-term environmental impact.” The NPA also claims that any visual impact on the national park landscape will be confined to the construction phase.

“There have been other similar schemes developed over the last two years - and other to the knowing eye you would not know that there is a buried pipe,” Lloyd adds. “The land has the ability to regenerate very quickly and within 18-24 months all evidence will have gone. We are confident that this will be the case at Cwm Glas.” 

Blighted landscapes?

However, the BMC is concerned that both the effect of erosion and the long-term impact on the landscape are being under-estimated.

“To get a pipe in at Cwm Glas, they are having to dig a great big trench and all the soil and rock has to be removed from that,” says Elfyn Jones, the BMC’s access and conservation officer for Wales. “That’s never going to be the same - there will be an obvious, clear scar there. Because of the steepness it will be difficult to stop erosion, because the only thing that prevents erosion is the vegetation.”

Wood adds that a new turbine house at the base of the Cwm Glas pipe increases the scheme’s visual impact. Other locals have pointed out that the damage done to the hillside by construction vehicles appears to breach the scheme’s planning permission, which stipulates that the track made to create the pipeline must be confined to 2000mm in width. For an insight into how schemes relating to hydro power can blight the landscape they occupy, you only have to look at Dinorwig on the edge of the national park - admittedly a much larger development, but one that has left the lake at its base out of bounds for recreation and a tarmac road running up Elidir Fach.

For the greater good…

So is the impact on such an iconic area a fair trade for all that clean, green power?

In a 2013 article for the BMC, Tom Hutton suggested that sacrificing some of our most beautiful and tranquil places for small gains in power is never going to be palatable for those who love the hills - and the energy produced by schemes such as Cwm Glas is negligible.

“The BMC has been accused of being anti-renewable when objecting to some of these proposals, when in fact what we are doing is being pro-landscape,” says Jones. “Micro-generation really does have a role to play in energy production, but the amount of energy produced by these schemes is miniscule. This is supposedly a 100kw scheme, capable of producing 277,000 kwh of power a year. By comparison, Dinorwig, which is not a giant producer by any means, produces 288 megawatts (288,000 kw) - nearly 3,000 times the production in the same time scale.”

That might be fine if the Snowdonia schemes were being used to benefit the local community, but Wood points out that the national park’s 82 megawatts of installed hydro already meets local needs. Any new schemes therefore go towards making Snowdonia a net exporter of energy - and it’s feared that much of the profit will find its way to the pockets of landowners and energy companies.  

More to come

With the government struggling to meet renewable energy targets and developers being offered such juicy incentives, Cwm Glas certainly won’t be the last hydroelectric scheme to provoke controversy within Snowdonia National Park. A 99.9 megawatt storage project has already been proposed at Glyn Rhonwy, across the road from Dinorwig - and more worryingly a planning application has also been submitted that would affect the Fairy Glen and the Afon Conwy.

“This scheme will involve environmental damage that is totally out of proportion to the power generated,” argues Wood. “For 128 days it will produce no power at all. And believe me, the Fairy Glen is one of the jewels in the national park. Until recent years, with the introduction of renewables at seemingly any cost, I thought designations such as ‘national park’ or ‘special area of conservation’ would safeguard these places from development. I was wrong.”
Increasing sustainable energy production is of course a worthwhile goal. But not at the expense of Britain’s most beautiful landscapes.

Andy Middleton, who sits on the Natural Resources Wales (NRW) board and is a flag-bearer for sustainability, recently summarized the issue nicely on Twitter: "Sustainable energy sources are key, as is storage. But not so that we can further exploit people and nature." However Andy would like to point out that this does not neccessarily reflect his views on this particular project and the comment represents his general view that just because energy is renewable it is good, that does not make it's use good i.e. it is the economy that needs re-shaping, not just our energy supply.


The Access and Conservation Trust

The BMC's charity  the BMC Access & Conservation Trust  promotes sustainable access to cliffs, mountains and open countryside by facilitating education and conservation projects across the United Kingdom and Ireland.

By educating climbers, hill walkers and mountaineers to enjoy outdoor recreation while minimising their impact on the landscape, conserving the UK’s upland resources, and campaigning for improved access rights, ACT enables future generations to continue to enjoy outdoor activities and the physical, mental and social benefits they bring to individual lives and society in general.

READ: More about the recent work of ACT

WATCH: the Mend Our Mountains: Make One Million campaign film


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