Renewable energy firm Drax is seeking planning permission to build a new underground pumped hydro storage power station to double capacity at its Argyll facility.
The move, at the famed ‘hollow mountain’ Cruachan hydro station, is hoped to support almost 900 jobs during the construction phase and will provide critical storage capacity to support net zero ambitions.
The 600MW power station will be located inside Ben Cruachan – Argyll’s tallest mountain – and will increase the site’s total capacity to 1.04GW.
The expansion is estimated to generate enough power for around one million homes.
Cavern wide enough to house Big Ben
A cavern will be hollowed out to create the new power station, which will be large enough to fit Big Ben on its side.
The new facility will be located to the east of the existing pumped storage hydro station, dating back to the 60s, which currently has a capacity of 440MW.
More than one million tonnes of rock will have to be excavated to clear the site for the new power station.
The expansion of Cruachan Power Station is a critical step towards a net zero electricity grid and net zero economy in Scotland and the UK as a whole.
🏞 Explore Cruachan 2 https://t.co/8F0vsZIdhW
— Drax (@DraxGroup) June 24, 2021
Developers have said the current upper reservoir, which can hold 2.4 billion gallons of water, is capable of serving both the existing and proposed station.
A labyrinth of underground tunnels and caverns will be created as part of the major infrastructure project.
Site to act like a ‘giant water battery’
Drax has said the new station, similar to the existing site, will provide “lifeline stability services” to the power station, alongside acting like a “giant water battery”.
The station will use reversible turbines to pump water from Loch Awe to the upper reservoir to store power from wind farms when supply outstrips demand.
Stored water can then be released back through the turbines to generate power in a fast and reliable way when demand increases.
The storage system is hoped to cut energy costs, including those paid to wind farm operators when asked to turn off due to generating excess power.
‘Exciting and important project’ to tackle climate crisis
Will Gardiner, chief executive of Drax Group, said: “This is an exciting and important project which underlines Drax’s commitment to tackling the climate crisis and supporting the energy system as it continues to decarbonise.
“Our plans to expand Cruachan will unlock more renewable electricity to power homes and businesses across the country, and support hundreds of new jobs in rural Scotland.
“Last year, the UK’s lack of energy storage capacity meant wind farms had to be paid to turn off and we lost out on enough renewable power to supply a million homes.
“We need to stop renewable power from going to waste by storing it, and Drax is ready to move mountains to do just that.”
Project’s start date estimated in 2024
In order for the facility to become a reality, a Section 36 application will have to be submitted to the Scottish Government under the Electricity Act 1989.
The whole process is estimated to take around 12 months.
The project will also require an updated policy and market support mechanism from the UK Government.
Work at the site, however, is not expected until 2024 at the earliest due to the requirement for approval.
Materials on the proposed scheme and how it will look have been made available to the public ahead of local consultation in July.
Local representatives support proposed project
Brendan O’Hara, Argyll and Bute MP, said: “I am delighted that Drax is progressing plans to expand the Ben Cruachan site.
“This will support 900 rural jobs and create a pumped storage facility that will be able to provide enough renewable energy to power a million homes while helping us reach our 2045 net zero target, it is great news for this area and for Scotland.”
Cruachan is already a vital part of GB electricity infrastructure. More pumped storage hydro is needed, so this is positive news – read why we think an innovative funding mechanism is needed: https://t.co/mUfPFgiYBf https://t.co/pL0PK9BA1W
— Scottish Renewables (@ScotRenew) June 24, 2021
Local MSP Jenni Minto added: “Investment in new pumped storage hydro capacity could greatly enhance the flexibility and resilience of the electricity network and help us move towards meeting our ambitious global climate change targets.
“In the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow, it’s more vital than ever that we come up with innovative solutions to the climate emergency and ensure that future generations reap the rewards of Scotland’s vast renewable potential.”
A £550 million pumped storage hydro scheme on the banks of Loch Ness was recently given the go ahead by Scottish Government ministers.