Category Archives: Environment

More Pumped Hydro Stations?

The phrase “power station” is bit of a misnomer for pumped hydro schemes, as they don’t so much generate power, as store it. The problem with electricity is that if you have too much, you can’t easily put it in a cupboard to retrieve it later. Instead, you have to store it in some other form. Pumped hydro does this by using electricity to increase the potential energy of a large mass of water – by pumping it uphill. To reclaim the energy, you let it flow back and spin up turbines, as in a conventional hydro system.

Naturally, this process is a bit wasteful – for every 4 units of electricity you use to push stuff uphill, you get about three back. But, there’s a big commercial advantage – while the domestic electricity prices are comparatively static, the prices for electricity within the industry follow the laws of supply and demand, typically changing every 30 minutes, and prices at times of peak demand or minimum supply can easily be three times higher than at times of low demand. So you ‘buy’ cheap electricity to pump water uphill, and then ‘sell’ expensive electricity when there’s a TV Pickup.

There are two pumped hydro facilities in North Wales – Dinorwig below Elidir Fawr, and the older and much smaller Ffestiniog. The UK’s other two facilities are in Scotland at Cruachan and Foyers. In particular, Dinorwig is a vital facility because not only can it handle surges caused by a near-infinite number of half-time kettles, it can also be used to ‘bootstrap’ the entire power grid during a Black Start.

Dinorwig was the last to be completed in 1984, and there hasn’t been much interest in additional schemes – until recently: The reason? Renewable energy, in particular wind and solar.

Outputs from both wind and solar power systems are largely unpredictable and highly susceptible to weather conditions. To provide backup power when the wind doesn’t blow requires either extra conventional power stations, or storage schemes. (I’m ignoring power imports here, as that’s really just moving the problem into some other country). Pumped storage is seen as a great solution because it doesn’t burn more fossil fuels, and you can store the excess power that your wind turbines would generate in the middle of the night – which would otherwise simply be lost. (There are other ways of handling this, by demand-side management, but that seems decades away from reality.)

However, there’s a catch. Pumped hydro schemes need very specific geographical conditions: Two bodies of water – an upper reservoir (Marchlyn Mawr, for Dinorwig) and a lower one (Llyn Padarn). The greater the vertical separation between the two, the more energy you can store. In some locations the sea can act as the lower reservoir., but typically the only suitable places you’ll find for these schemes is in mountainous territory. Also, they are huge, expensive and impressive engineering schemes- to build Dinorwig, 12 million tons of rock was excavated from Elidir Fawr.

There are two proposals for new Pumped Hydro schemes in Scotland – Coire Glas, above Loch Lochy , and Balmacaan, where there’s also a controversial wind farm proposal.

But, what about Wales?

When Dinorwig was being planned, two other sites were under consideration – Llyn Cwm-y-Foel below Cnicht in Cwm Croesor, and Llyn Newydd, east of Blaenau Ffestiniog. Llyn Cwm-y-Foel sits in a hanging valley, and already has a small conventional hydro generator. There’s no lower lake, so a new reservoir would need building below. There are suggestions that these sites could be reconsidered for new developments. I suspect that’s a long way off, but it’s another reminder that heavy reliance on wind and solar power can bring a whole new set of problems and challenges in its wake.


Name that Fungus?

Just on the margins of Glaslyn, I saw these small, white fungi poking their heads out of the gravel. No idea what they are, but 500m up, on the exposed and windswept gravel shore of an oligotrophic lake seemed an odd location for something so fragile-looking.

Last Chance to See…

Plynlimon was the first proper hill that I climbed on my own. It’s also the first hill I camped on. My first visit was in near-zero visibility, and the sense of achievement compensated for the total lack of summit views. I’ve been back a lot since then, and it’s an area I love. It’s the feeling of space, the silence, and the sense of being in wilderness.  

Except it’s not. There are signs of man everywhere. Some, millennia old, like the bronze age burial cairns that sit atop most of the peaks here. Others, mere centuries old, like the remains of the Lead Mine on the track from Eisteddfa Gurig, and Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn’s boundary markers.

And there are newer intrusions, like the Nant-y-Moch reservoir and the useful navigational handrails of sheep fences.

But as you reach the lead mine, take the time to turn and look behind you. Across the road, you’ll see some of the Cefn Croes wind turbines peeping over the hillside. The 39 turbines here were installed in 2005, despite vociferous opposition.

Now there are plans for a new and bigger wind farm on the hills south and west of the reservoir. 64 turbines, up to 145m high, and significantly closer than Cefn Croes.

Both sides of the wind energy debate seem to be able to produce reams of misleading figures, maps and other propaganda, but it all boils down to emotion or money at the end. And yet… the environment and landscape here will be changed significantly, permanently, and for the worse – more by the concrete foundations and access roads than by the turbines perched on top. The Cefn Croes turbine bases required over 600 tons of concrete each. These ones won’t be smaller. And the concrete here is permanent. It will not be removed when the wind farm is decommissioned.

Looking at the remains of the lead mine, we don’t have a good record in this country of clearing up industrial sites in the hills when they become economically unviable – and wind turbines don’t last forever. Nant-y-moch has  a planned lifespan of only 25 years. If we do have to tolerate wind farms in our hills, how do we ensure that we’re not left with a forest of fallen, rusting turbines in a concrete desert in a hundred or so years time?

Mystery guests

When I was in the Berwyns last week, I saw a couple of plants that weren’t familiar. The first was just some broad crinkly leaves poking out of the usual ling and bilberry mix as I headed up the ridge path to Foel Wen. They were spread over quite a large area – several hundred metres at least.

I’m pretty sure they’re Cloudberry, and the Berwyns is one of the few places in Wales where you’ll find them. Unfortunately, they don’t give much fruit in the UK. Richard Mabey’s excellent book Food for Free has this wonderful bit of trivia:

In the Berwyn Mountains an unusual tradition commemorated this scarcity…  Shepherds from Llanrhaiadr believed that a quart of cloudberries was the wage that St. Dogfan was due for his spiritual ministry, and anyone who could bring such a quantity to the parson on St. Dogfan’s Day had his tithes remitted for the year.

The second unknown was a spread of these beautiful little yellow flowers in some sheep pastures on the lower slopes. Mountain Pansies