This article first appeared in The Scotsman newspaper.
You may not be able to see many of them, but in recent years hundreds of new small-scale ‘run of the river’ hydro schemes have been powering a quiet revolution in Scotland’s glens, says Mark Mathieson, Chief Executive Officer of Green Highland Renewables.
Ask anyone In Scotland to name a hydro energy project and odds on they’ll give you one of the great schemes from the last century – Tummel Bridge, Rannoch or Sloy, or most likely the Cruachan Power Station at the head of Loch Awe, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in October.
Each of these iconic schemes is still working today, and we all continue to rely on the pumped storage at Cruachan to provide vital peak power when the nation flicks the kettle on after Strictly.
Even as it was completed, the Cruachan station – an engineering marvel used as a film set for James Bond – marked the end of an era. It was the penultimate large station built above the Highland line.
But if you were to think new hydro schemes were a thing of the past, you’d be mistaken.
Recent years have seen a very different, equally exciting hydro story unfold.
They may not be nearly as visible – or as controversial – as the massive schemes of the 20th century, but over the last few years, small-scale, ‘run of the river’ hydro has been powering a quiet revolution in Scotland’s glens.
Dozens of schemes, many suited to powering hundreds rather than thousands of homes, have been built.
Instead of relying on enormous dams, fuelled by huge catchments, these run of river projects are typically sited high up on the burns that feed our lochs and rivers. Small intakes – often only a few metres across – capture most (but not all) of the stream’s flow and carry it downhill via an underground pipe to a turbine, usually housed in a sympathetically-designed building, near the bottom.
You won’t spot many of them – they are small in scale and often remote – but over the last five years we have seen around 450 projects totalling nearly 70 megawatts built north of the Highland line, together supplying enough electricity to power more than 50,000 homes.
Around 1700 people now work in the hydro sector in Scotland, and increasingly local communities are taking a stake.
Earlier this year the local community in Morvern switched on a scheme in which they had invested themselves – bringing long term power and income to the locality.
Nor is it just locals who benefit. In the last six months we have seen major investments in the sector by the Green Investment Bank, Ancala Renewables and the Greater Manchester and Strathclyde pension funds. As they know, hydro schemes will provide power – and a stable income – for decades to come.
It is a very positive scene, and great news for Scotland.
But of course the world does not stand still. The influx of newer forms of energy – such as solar power – have caused the UK Government to look anew at renewable energy and how the various technologies are supported in the years ahead.
In all of this, I believe hydro stands apart. As well as being our oldest and most reliable form of green energy, it is also by far the most popular. More popular, in fact, than any other form of generation.
The big hydro schemes built last century are still working today, and I am confident these new small schemes we are building now will still be generating green power in fifty years’ time.
Of course we face challenges – any industry does – but there is no doubt that hydro is one form of green energy that remains almost universally popular, which is great news for communities, for jobs, and inward investment.
With the right support, hydro energy will continue to bring power to the people for many decades to come.