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EXPLAINED: Loch Ness attracts developers in hydro ‘gold rush’

By Val Sweeney

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Loch Ness is at the centre of a hydro "gold rush".
Loch Ness is at the centre of a hydro "gold rush".

For decades, Loch Ness has been pulling in visitors from around the world, drawn by its scenic appeal and sense of mystery.

But the UK’s largest volume of water is now proving to be an alluring - if contentious - draw to those hoping to harness the power of this vast natural resource to generate renewable energy for homes and businesses across the UK.

As the green power revolution gathers pace in the drive towards a net zero emissions future by 2045 in Scotland, so the Highlands are regarded as being key towards achieving this ambitious target.

And Loch Ness is emerging at the very heart of what some are describing as the “hydro gold rush” which could see five major schemes making use of the world-famous loch which holds an estimated 263,000 millions of cubic feet of water.

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Hydro power already has a long history in the Highlands thanks to steep mountains, lochs and rivers and rainfall.

Over the decades, the region has grown as a hydro powerhouse with schemes ranging from the massive developments built in remote glens in the 1950s to the many micro projects using burns or streams to generate power for single properties.

Highland Council even got in the act with its award-winning Hydro Ness which opened two years ago and generates electricity on the River Ness using an Archimedes Screw.

Amid a flurry of proposed schemes for the next phase of hydro power, Loch Ness is seen as an attractive resource by developers citing the environmental and economic benefits.

But the proposals are also prompting alarm over the potential impact of fluctuating water levels caused by several pumped storage hydro schemes which take water from the loch.

The Ness District Salmon Fishery Board (DSFB) has already called for a halt on any further development of such schemes, saying dramatic fluctuations in water levels could spell disaster for its fragile ecosystem and the Ness’s already beleaguered wild salmon population.

Concerns have been raised about the impact of pumped hydro schemes on cruise boat operations on Loch Ness.
Concerns have been raised about the impact of pumped hydro schemes on cruise boat operations on Loch Ness.

Leading tourism operator Jacobite Cruises, has also lodged an objection to a recently-proposed project warning it could effect its ability to operate its boats and in turn, hit the region’s tourism industry and have a “devastating” impact on the economy.

The Foyers and Glendoe schemes are long-established while Red John - now renamed Loch na Cathrach - was given permission in 2021 but has yet to be built.

Plans for two more projects, Loch Kemp and Glen Earrach, have been unveiled which, if given the go-ahead, would bring the total to five.

All would be significant in size and would be part of a network of other developments including Coire Glas on Loch Lochy and the Fearna project, about 25km west of Invergarry.

Main currently operational, approved and proposed hydro projects in the Loch Ness area.
Main currently operational, approved and proposed hydro projects in the Loch Ness area.

The five Loch Ness schemes:

Foyers hydro scheme:

SSE's Foyers power station was completed in 1974 and discharges 200 tonnes of water per second at full steam.

It takes water held in Loch Mhor to drive two reversible pump-turbines to generate electricity at times of high demand, and uses cheaper off peak electricity to pump water from Loch Ness back up to Loch Mhor ready to be reused when demand is high.

In an average year, Foyers generates enough electricity to supply about 68,000 homes – equivalent to a city the size of Cambridge.


In 2009, Glendoe, the first major hydro electric power station to be built in Scotland for almost 30 years, began generating electricity.

The project involved constructing a 960 metre-wide dam on the River Taff to create a new reservoir 600 metres above the power station, giving it the greatest head of any hydro electric power station in the UK.

It provides enough electricity annually to supply around 56,000 homes, the equivalent to a town the size of Gravesend.

Loch na Cathrach pumped storage hydro scheme (formerly known as Red John):

One of the biggest renewable energy projects in the north, the £550 million Loch na Cathrach venture

has yet to be built in the hills near Dores.

The 450MW scheme, first conceived in 2015, was granted consent by Scottish Government ministers in June 2021 despite strong objections from campaigners and Highland Council worried about the impact on Loch Ness.

The project was bought over last December by Statkraft - the hydropower company, fully owned by the Norwegian state - from Scottish energy development company, Intelligent Land Investments Group.

It now has an operational date for as early as 2030 and significant construction work beginning in 2025.

Loch Kemp pumped storage hydro scheme:

Plans for Loch Kemp scheme near Whitebridge were lodged by developer, Statera Energy, in December 2023.

If given the go-ahead, the 600MW scheme would use the existing Loch Kemp as the upper storage reservoir and Loch Ness as the lower reservoir.

Eight small dams are proposed around Loch Kemp to allow the water levels to rise and fall by 28 metres, increasing storage capacity and increasing generation capability.

Construction is expected to give a £30 million boost to the Highland economy and employ more than 350 people each year, during construction plus 25 high quality long term jobs.

The proposals have attracted objections from the the Ness District Salmon Fishery Board and the Woodland Trust

Glen Earrach:

The proposed Glen Earrach Energy (GEE) project on the Balmacaan Estate would make use of what the developers describe as one of the best-suited sites in Europe for pumped storage hydro technology.

If given the go-ahead, the massive state-of-the-art scheme, which would use Loch Ness and Loch nam Breac Dearga, would represent investment of more than £2 billion and create hundreds of jobs during construction.

Other hydro schemes in the area:

Coire Glas, Loch Lochy:

The giant Coire Glass project at Loch Lochy would be the UK's biggest hydroelectric project for 40 years and double the country’s ability to store electricity for long periods.

Scottish ministers approved the 1.5GW project, which is owned by SSE Renewables, in 2020.

Once operational, Coire Glas will be able to generate enough power for 3 million homes in just five minutes.

Fearna hydro project:

Plans were revealed last month for the Fearna project which would be a nationally-significant venture based about 25km west of Invergarry.

The proposal, put forward by UK hydro developer Gilkes Energy, would use Loch Fearna as the upper reservoir and Loch Quoich as the lower reservoir.

What is pumped storage hydro?

It works by moving water between two reservoirs at different elevations.

During periods of low energy demand, excess electricity is used to pump water from the lower reservoir to the upper reservoir.

When energy demand is high, water is released back into the lower reservoir through turbines, generating electricity rapidly and efficiently.

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