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Coire Glas Hydro Scheme, SSE Calls for Certainty on £1.5 billion Project

A major hydroelectric scheme which would double the UK’s ability to store energy has been given a £100 million investment by SSE. Situated on the shores of Loch Lochy, between Fort William and Inverness, the Coire Glas project would be Britain’s biggest hydroelectric project for 40 years.

£1.5 billion needed by Coire Glas for construction

The proposed 92m-high dam and two reservoirs in the Highlands was approved by the Scottish Minister in 2020 and is expected to require a capital investment of over £1.5 billion to construct. But before making a final investment decision on the 1.5GW pumped storage facility, power giant SSE wants assurances from the UK Government. 

The hydro scheme would help tackle climate change

A spokesperson for the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero said it was “committed to supporting the low carbon hydro sector, including hydro storage”. The £1.5 billion scheme would not only improve UK energy security, but help tackle climate change, says SSE. 

Once constructed, the Coire Glas project would be capable of delivering 30GWh of long duration storage. The hydro scheme would take excess energy from the National Grid and use it to pump water 500 metres uphill from Loch Lochy to an upper reservoir with the capacity of 11,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

“One of the most ambitious energy infrastructure projects the UK has ever seen”

SSE Finance Director Gregor Alexander said: “Coire Glas will be one of the most ambitious energy infrastructure projects the UK has ever seen and is a key component of SSE’s commitment to helping lead Scotland and the UK’s energy transition.

“The £100 million investment we have announced today will help play a crucial role in further advancing the Coire Glas project towards a final investment decision in 2024, which will enable the project to move towards construction. If delivered around the turn of the decade, Coire Glas could play a crucial role in getting the UK to net zero.”

If successfully delivered, the hydroelectric project would be the UK’s largest hydro scheme since the “Electric Mountain”. This project was constructed at Dinorwig in Snowdonia in 1984 and was one of the largest-ever engineering projects in the Highlands, creating 500 construction jobs at its peak.

Coire Glas would more than double Great Britain’s existing electricity storage capacity.
Coire Glas would more than double Great Britain’s existing electricity storage capacity.

The debate concerning pace of the energy construction

The pace of the energy transition has been widely debated. In the current campaign for the SNP leadership, outgoing First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon said she had not seen any evidence to justify the expansion on environmental or energy security grounds. Sturgeon is concerned whether the new North Sea oil and gas plan will meet Scotland’s target of Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045.

However, Energy Portfolio Manager at SSE, Finlay McCutcheon maintained that there was a clear case for the UK Government to endorse a strategic expansion in hydro capacity. 

According to McCutcheon, the firm’s existing assets had been “absolutely critical” in ensuring uninterrupted power supply during the recent “energy crisis” that struck the UK and Europe this winter. Despite the mild climate, “our existing pumped storage – Foyers on the shores of Loch Ness – has never been used so intensely,” McCutcheon added.

Final thought

Coire Glas has the potential to facilitate the shift from non-renewable sources of energy such as oil, gas, and coal to more sustainable but intermittent sources of energy such as wind and solar. By storing electricity generated in windy or sunny weather for use on cold, still or dark days, the project has the ability to generate revenue from supporting the grid. But will the pace of the energy transition support Scotland’s target date for Net Zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2045?

Perth-based SSE is still looking for policy clarity from the UK government on how pumped storage can generate revenue from supporting the grid. If directions are provided, SSE believes that the scheme could be operational in 2031.

Finance Director at SSE, Gregor Alexander confirmed that the project did not need government subsidies but said there had to be “certainty” from Westminster to move forward with the transition. He said that the £100 million investment was a “significant down payment” to keep the development moving forward but warned that a positive final decision would depend “on the prevailing policy environment”.

Energy Sustainability Commission

Independent policy institute, Curia is holding a series of inquiry sessions on the future of energy sustainability and delivering he UK’s Net Zero ambitions.

To find out more about Curia’s work on energy sustainability, contact team@curiauk.com

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