Power project

Drax submits plan for £500m hydro station

Generating units in the Cruachan hollow mountain

Power generator Drax has submitted an application for its plan to build a £500 million underground pumped storage hydro power station at its “hollow mountain” Cruachan hydro plant near Glasgow.

It says the station, first announced last June, would more than double the plant’s electricity generating capacity but it needs market support from the government to make it viable.

It would be bhe first newly constructed plant of its kind in the UK in more than 40 years and will provide critical storage capacity to strengthen the UK’s energy security and enable net zero.

Pumped hydro plants work by pumping water uphill to an upper reservoir and then releasing it to enable to water to flow downhill through turbines to produce electricity when it is needed.

Developers of the technology say it can help to balance out a growing amount of renewable electricity on the power grid, using their surplus renewable power when demand is low to pump the water and storing it so it is ready to be released when demand high.

Cruachan Dam
Cruachan dam

Planning approval will take about a year as Drax must secure consent under Section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989 from the Scottish Government. Construction of the 600 megawatt plant is scheduled to begin in 2024 and take around six years to complete.

The project will also require an updated policy and market support mechanism from the UK Government. The existing lack of a framework for long-duration electricity storage and flexibility technologies means that private investment cannot currently be secured in new pumped storage hydro projects, with no new plants built anywhere in the UK since 1984 despite their critical role in decarbonisation.

The plant will be housed within a new, hollowed-out cavern which would be large enough to fit Big Ben on its side.  Around two million tonnes of rock will be excavated to create the cavern, tunnels, and other parts of the power station.

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It will use reversible turbines to pump water from Loch Awe to the upper reservoir on the mountainside to store excess power from wind farms and other low carbon technologies when supply outstrips demand and then use this stored water to generate renewable power when it is needed.

A new generation of pumped storage hydro plants can play a major role in reducing emissions and significantly cutting the UK’s reliance on imported gas through their storage and flexibility services. 

Wind farms are routinely paid to turn off when supply outstrips demand or there is insufficient capacity on the National Grid Transmission System due to a lack of energy storage creating local bottlenecks. In 2020, enough wind power to supply around a million homes went to waste because of this.

Ian Kinnaird, Drax’s Scottish assets director, said: “Drax’s plan to expand Cruachan will strengthen the UK’s energy security by enabling more homegrown renewable electricity to come online to power homes and businesses across the country, helping to end our reliance on imports and cut costs. 

“This major infrastructure project will support hundreds of jobs and provide a real boost to the Scottish economy.

“Only by investing in long-duration storage technologies can the UK reach its full renewable potential, and Drax is ready to move mountains to do just that.”

Ian Kinnaird: ready to move mountains

Drax’s plans to expand Cruachan has also won support from former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. During his time in office, Mr Turnbull announced the construction of Snowy Hydro 2.0 – the biggest pumped hydro scheme in the southern hemisphere.

He is now a board member of the International Hydropower Association and Co-Chair of the International Forum on Pumped Storage Hydropower.

Commenting on Drax’s exciting expansion plans, Mr Turnbull said: “Within the climate crisis the world is facing an ignored crisis – how to ensure that we do not fall back on fossil fuels when the wind isn’t blowing, and the sun isn’t shining.

“We need green energy security solutions, and Drax’s plans to expand Cruachan will enable the UK to enhance its energy security and enable more renewable power to come online.”

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