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Loch Ness is focus for another proposed Highland hydro project

By Val Sweeney

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Loch Breac Dearga will provide one important part of the propopsed hydro project, coupled with Loch Ness.
Loch Breac Dearga will provide one important part of the propopsed hydro project, coupled with Loch Ness.

Ambitious plans have been revealed for another major hydro scheme using Loch Ness in the drive to generate more green energy and reach net zero emission targets.

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, pumping water between the world-famous loch and Loch nam Breac Dearga on its northern side

If given the go-ahead, the massive state-of-the-art scheme would represent investment of more than £2 billion and create hundreds of jobs during construction.

It comes amid a flurry of proposed pumped storage hydro schemes in the area and potentially, it could be the fifth one at Loch Ness where concerns have been raised previously regarding the potential environmental and economic impact.

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GEE - a subsidiary company of Balmac Forest which owns the estate - has submitted a scoping report to the Scottish Government’s Energy Consents Unit and will also be seeking the views of the local community and interested parties through a programme of consultation events.

It is also working to develop the detailed design of the scheme, which would have a power rating of 2000MW (2GW), and 30GWh storage.

The company hopes to submit a planning application by early next year with construction starting in late 2025 or early 2026 and taking about eight years to complete.

It says the timescales are driven by the Electricity Grid Net Zero targets - in the UK it is currently 2035 but is expected to be brought forward to 2030 under a new administration.

Roderick MacLeod, director of GEE, says the Glen Earrach scheme would be the most efficient of its type in Europe due to the topography, the scale, the geology and its central grid proximity to wind farms.

“This project is a step towards a sustainable future, leveraging one of the best-suited sites in Europe for pumped storage hydro technology,” he said.

“Our proximity to significant wind farms enhances the potential efficiency and reduces the environmental impacts of this facility, promising a greener and more energy-independent Scotland.”

Work on the project has been ongoing for the past two years and has involved expertise from teams in Scotland and Switzerland.

The proposed project’s upper reservoir, Loch nam Breac Dearga, sits below Meall Fuar-mhonaidh, the highest hill around Loch Ness.

“In terms of size and in terms of power, it is significantly larger than any other PSH projects which are being proposed or exist on Loch Ness,” Mr MacLeod said.

“I think what is important to bring into the equation is the topography of the site.

“It is very close to Loch Ness and also has over 480 metres in vertical drop between the top and bottom reservoir.

“What that means is that it is going to make the most efficient use of the water of Loch Ness compared to any existing or proposed PSH projects.

“Our grid proximity to major wind farms also increases the potential efficiency of the project”.

Two schemes are already operational on Loch Ness - Foyers and Glendoe - while the Loch na Cathrach project (previously known as Red John) near Dores was granted permission in 2021.

Plans for a 600 MW pumped storage hydro scheme at Loch Kemp near Whitebridge were submitted in December, prompting calls from Ness District Salmon Fishery Board for a halt on any further development of pumped storage hydro schemes using Loch Ness, saying dramatic fluctuations in water levels could spell disaster for its fragile ecosystem and the Ness’s already beleaguered wild salmon population.

Tourism operator Jacobite Cruises, has also objected warning the scheme 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.

With plans for the GEE project now being unveiled, Mr MacLeod is aware of the potential for objections.

He said for each 1000MWh of electricity stored, Loch Ness’s water level would change only by about half-an-inch (1.4cm).

“We are fully aware this is a massive project which is going to come into the community,” he said.

“That is why we are engaging very seriously with the community at the beginning of this project.

“We want to engage and have discussions with everyone to make sure the project is as good as it possibly can be, firstly by minimising the environmental impact and making sure it is as unobtrusive as possible.”

The company has taken advice from experts in Switzerland on achieving this.

"We are confident we can deliver it in a very discreet manner without causing congestion on the roads," Mr MacLeod said.

A community engagement event will be held at Glenurquhart Public Hall from 11am-2.30pm on Friday, May 24, including a presentation from Mr MacLeod at midday. Register to attend here

The scoping document can be accessed here

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