Power from the Glens – Neart nan Gleann

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Power from the Glens 1st edition cover produced by SSE

By Russell Bruce

Scotland has a long history of Hydro Power and the Highlands has a crucial link with this form of power generation. Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) announced last week that is was to invest £50 million in upgrading its Tummel Bridge hydro-electric power plant, replacing the two existing turbines with new turbine technology. Tummel Bridge is one of Scotland’s earliest hydro power plants. Built in 1933 by the privately owned Grampian Electric Supply Company it was taken over as a result of the 1943 Hydro Electric (Scotland) Act introduced by war-time Secretary of State for Scotland Tom Johnston which resulted in the creation of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board.

The Grade A 1933 Tummel Bridge Hydro Power plant

The development of linked and much expanded hydro power generation was driven by the vision of ILP member and Red Clydesider Tom Johnston who became chair of the new publicly owned board in 1946. Johnston stood down as an MP at the end of the war-time coalition government. He chaired the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board until 1959.

The development of hydro electricity was rolled out rapidly during Johnston’s time at the Hydro Board and by the mid 1960’s Scotland had 56 dams connected by 600km of rock tunnels, aqueducts and pipelines. Then came privatisation in the 1990s and in 1998 the merger with Southern Electricity to form SSE.

Today SSE is the UK’s largest generator of renewable energy thanks to the legacy of Tom Johnson’s achievement in bringing power to the Highlands onto which they have added large investments in wind energy and with the acquisition of Irish wind farm business Airtricity in 2008.

Hydro generation today produces 19% of Scotland’s renewable energy as our graph in a previous article illustrated and shown below.

Scotland's renewable energy output % GWh 2020
Hydro generation still powering Scotland

Tummel Bridge is part of a 9 hydro power station configuration from Rannoch in the West, dating from 1930 and upgraded a few years ago, and Cuaich in the North culminating at Pitlochry where there is a popular visitor centre. Tummel Bridge is a stunning Grade A listed building.

SSE are planning to develop a new renewable power source to generate hot water by capturing the heat from high voltage transformers owned by National Grid, in England and Wales, for local district heating networks operated by SSE. Transformer heat is currently vented from substations and lost in the atmosphere. A trial will identify the potential and if successful could result in up the 1300 transformer ‘boilers’ heating homes from wasted heat.

But there is something wrong with SSE and Johnston would be furious if he was alive today

In our series of articles on Power Scotland it is our intention to explain the positives in Scotland’s journey to become a world leader in renewable energy. In covering the major players that means being balanced on the achievements of the private sector, including FTSE listed SSE.

This graphic has been given much exposure but there are major issues with the way some of the data is presented. There is not a single rate for England as suggested. Another article there. The charges for the SSE and Scottish Power areas are correct and levied by these two companies as the Distribution Network Operators.

Much circulated on social media this graphic is misleading in respect of charges in England

Newsnet has a particular issue with the high charges in the SSE area. In Tom Johnston’s time the objective was to bring electricity to the Highlands when only 1 in 6 farms and 1 in 200 crofts has access to electricity. The bulk of the power generated was destined for the central belt. Johnson believed people in the Highlands should benefit from the unique power generation assets of the area.

The North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board had a social remit, typical of Johnston which I recalled whilst researching this article. For a short period I handled the Hydro Board advertising account. Under Johnson electricity would be a bit cheaper to consumers in the Highlands – not the loading added by SSE and approved by Ofgem.

Newsnet believes the SSE charges should be vastly reduced or preferably abolished. SSE has unique access to the renewable assets of the Highlands that will only increase with the expansion of wind and the coming opportunities of wave and tidal. Then there is the potential SSE identified of extracting heat from high voltage transformers which are owned by SSE and Scottish Power in Scotland.

It is time to give something back to a uniquely energy advantaged area. SSE (and Scottish Power) profit from the unique geographical advantages of Scotland’s land, wind, water and extensive maritime resources. Scottish ministers are not without influence in dealing with a private sector able to benefit from our natural resources. A change intimated in the run up to COP26 would be timely and a tribute to the foresight and achievements of Tom Johnston on which they have built their business and profits.

The headline and graphic is from a book produced by SSE. The image is of the first edition cover published in 2005. A pdf version is available to download online. An updated 4th edition we understand is available from SSE’s PItlochry Visitor Centre, published in 2018 to mark 75 years since the passing of Johnston’s 1943 Hydro Electric (Scotland) Act. Gregor Alexander, SSE’s Finance Director, said: “SSE is very proud of its hydro heritage and we all owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who helped create our network of tunnels, dams and hydro stations. This is a key chapter in Scotland’s social and engineering history and we felt we had a duty to tell that story.”

NOTE: Distribution Network Operators

The UK is split up into Distribution Networks run by Distribution Network Operators (DNOs). Scotland has two, SSE and Scottish Power. SSE’s network, SSEN Transmission, is a wholly-owned subsidiary. Scottish Power has a similar corporate structure. There are 12 DNOs covering different parts of England and Wales. It is DNOs who set transmission charges with the approval of Ofgem.