Monarch of the Glen estate threatened by hydroelectric power

Deep in Monarch of the Glen country, the daunting rock climb of Binnein Shuas is just one attraction in an untamed, dramatic landscape that blends towering snow-capped Munros, picturesque secluded lakes and rugged terrain.

However, it has now become apparent that climbers and hikers may have to navigate a different and potentially more frustrating route before they can even put their boots on the rocky cliffs.

Plans have surfaced to turn part of the Ardverikie Estate – star of TV series Monarch of the Glen – into Britain’s largest pumped storage power station; a move that would see up to 400 workers storm the peaceful site, turning it and the narrow streets around it into a major construction site for four years.

Gilkes Energy is planning two dams to control the water levels at Loch Leamhain – used as the upper reservoir – and Loch Earba as the lower reservoir, and to connect both to a deep 3km underground waterway system.

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The move, it is said, would raise the water level of Loch Earba by up to 20m and Loch Leamhain by a staggering 65m.

Elsewhere, an underground aqueduct is planned to divert water from two watercourses to the upper lake – raising concerns about the potential impact on a variety of aquatic species.

All operations are overseen by a power station on the shores of Loch Earba, known for its beautiful sandy beaches.

The massive project, unveiled to locals in the area last week, also involves the construction of an underground cable to carry power from the site to the Beauly Denny line near Kinloch Laggan.

Cumbria-based Gilkes Energy says its 900MW Earba storage project, when completed, would have the capacity of up to 33,000MWh of energy – more than double the UK’s current electricity storage from all technologies.

The prospect of major disturbances in a landscape officially designated as Wildlands and Special Landscape Areas, with uprooted valuable peatlands, unsightly storage yards for machinery and a camp designed to house hundreds of the mostly men expected to serve at the construction.

Whilst for walkers wishing to explore the Munros of Geal Charn, Creag Pitridh and Beinn a Chlachair – and others accessible via historic mountain routes from Moy Bridge – there are new obstacles to overcome.

Under the plans, a section of track would be cut off from Moy Bridge, leaving them with a newly built line and, according to the plans, “permanent loss of public land”.

Announced just weeks after a controversial relaxation of planning rules for renewable energy projects in Scotland’s designated wildland areas, the project is the latest to raise concerns about the impact on landscape, waterways, countryside and outdoor recreation.

Last summer, work on seven controversial hydroelectric power stations in Glen Etive – featured in the James Bond film Skyfall – is said to have transformed the wilderness into an industrial site.

Opponents said the Run of River projects, which once used free-flowing water, would produce less energy than a single wind turbine in the North Sea, but at a massive environmental cost.

While other Highland hydro projects are also said to be causing traffic disruption for local people and concerns about rapidly falling water levels in once stable lochs.

This includes preparatory work at Coire Glas, a 1500 MW hydroelectric power station. It has raised concerns among locals about traffic on single lane roads and disposal of rock and overburden from the site.

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At Loch Rannoch, part of the Tummel Hydro Scheme, local residents have raised concerns about low water levels, the impact on caddis, mayflies, dragonfly and stonefly larvae, as well as the fish and birds that rely on them for food.

Mountaineering Scotland said the Earba project “raises some significant concerns for climbers and hill walkers”.

Plans are to call for a detailed access management plan that will maintain and manage access to the Ardverikie wall and recreational access for hill walkers seeking the three Munro peaks beyond.

The organization is also pushing for a wildland assessment to consider how construction access routes will be built and has highlighted the issues related to “highly visible and intrusive barren subsidence zones around the lakes” as water levels can vary when the dam is in operation.

His Access and Conservation Officer, Davie Black, added: “The developer of this hydroelectric power station has to go a few more miles in order not to permanently damage the wild feel of this landscape.

“It is a very popular area for climbers and hikers so all engineering work must be planned and executed to the highest standards.

“It’s still in its early stages and we’re excited to see how the applicant will address our concerns about outdoor access and the visual impact on the wild qualities of the landscape.”

Meanwhile, Nick Kempe of outdoor website Parkswatch Scotland said the recent change to the national planning framework, which appears to support renewable energy projects in wild country areas, could trigger a spate of similar projects.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this one shows up now,” he added.

“Scotland needs a national energy agency – like it did earlier with Hydro Electric – that can make decisions about where things should go. Instead, a planning framework has emerged that enables a free market.”

The project has also raised concerns about the potential impact on wildlife from the level of subsidence caused by the dams and the disruption to waterways.

Dave Morris, former director of Ramblers Scotland, said: “Lochan na h-Earba is one of the few remaining lakes and rivers that has not been affected by artificial structures.

“An issue of increasing concern is the relationship between river systems and the migration of fish along that river and to more distant locations.

“This proposed development will raise questions about value for money,” he added.

“The size and scale of offshore wind turbine development is such that investment in offshore wind farms is likely to deliver much better value for money in electricity generation than greater onshore hydropower development, with its impact on our increasingly scarce emerging wild land resources.”

However, Gilkes Energy Ltd’s Chris Pasteur said pumped storage power stations like Earba are crucial in helping to balance intermittent forms of renewable generation in the UK electricity system as they “can provide energy when demand is high and the wind isn’t blowing or it’s not sunny”. .

“We believe this is a well thought out project which will bring significant additional jobs to the region, both during construction and during operation, and make an important contribution to the Scottish Government’s ambitious climate change target.”

At Ardverikie Estates manager Phil Lloyd said every step is being taken to ensure the project has minimal impact.

“The estate has been in existence for 150 years and we have an exceptional track record as landscapers that we want to continue.

“It is in nobody’s interest to cause damage or disruption and it is important for the property and developers to ensure concerns are addressed as much as possible.

“These large projects come under scrutiny and we are confident that this will stand up to it.

“We hope that people see it positively and people consider that if we don’t address this fundamental issue of carbon and climate change, all of our landscapes will be affected, not just Ardverikie.” Monarch of the Glen estate threatened by hydroelectric power

Adam Bradshaw

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