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Proposed Loch Ness hydro scheme could have devastating impacts on Highland tourism and economy, says owner of Jacobite Cruises

By Val Sweeney

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Concerns have been raised about a proposed hydro scheme using Loch Ness.
Concerns have been raised about a proposed hydro scheme using Loch Ness.

Two major business organisations have found themselves at odds over a proposed green energy project on the south side of Loch Ness.

Plans for a 600 MW pumped storage hydro scheme at Loch Kemp near Whitebridge were submitted by developer, Statera Energy, in December.

But leading tourism operator Jacobite Cruises, has lodged an objection, 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.

However, Inverness Chamber of Commerce - which has more than 300 members - supports the Loch Kemp scheme, citing its scale for electricity generation and employment plus its ease of construction.

Fishery board calls for halt on development of pump storage hydro schemes using Loch Ness

Hydro scheme above Loch Ness could be running by 2030

If given the go-ahead, the project would use the existing Loch Kemp as the upper storage reservoir and Loch Ness as the lower reservoir while construction is expected to give a £30 million boost to the Highland economy.

It is among other planned hydro schemes in the region including the Loch na Cathrach project - previously known as Red John - which would also use Loch Ness.

The Ness District Salmon Fishery Board (DSFB) has already called 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.

Now, Freda Newton, owner and chairwoman of Jacobite Cruises, has added her objections to the proposed Loch Kemp scheme.

“The main source of our concern is direct project and cumulative effects on water levels to our ability to operate our cruise vessel offerings, which in turn could have a major impact upon the Highland Tourism Sector,” she stated in letters to the Scottish Government’s energy consents unit and Highland Council.

The hydro scheme could impact on the ability to operate boats, says Jacobite Cruises.
The hydro scheme could impact on the ability to operate boats, says Jacobite Cruises.

The cruise boats have three key embarkation points - Dochgarroch Locks, The Clansman Harbour and pontoons at Urquhart Castle - where the infrastructure has been designed to take account of natural variations in water levels although operational issues do arise in periods of very high or low water.

Ms Newton believed changing water levels and their knock-on impacts on ecology and tourism had not been adequately considered in an environmental assessment of the project.

“Dry weather, paired with water abstraction from Loch Ness could reduce levels to unprecedented lows,” she said.

“This would result in significant negative impacts on Jacobite Cruises operations, forcing a reduction in passenger numbers, or leading to cancelled sailings.”

She said this could have major repercussions for tourism on Loch Ness and the surrounding area.

Tour operators relying on a drop-off service at Urquhart Castle, for example, would not be able to offer cruise excursions on Loch Ness.

“Not only would Jacobite lose out on considerable revenue as a result but the experience available to tour operators’ customers would be devalued and hence multiple businesses could be impacted,” she said.

“This may ultimately lead to the Highlands being a less attractive destination and harnesses the potential for cruise ships to stop berthing at local ports, which would be a huge blow to the Highland’s tourist economy.”

Freda Newton
Freda Newton

She urged all impacts on water levels, ecology and tourism to be fully considered, with direct input from loch and Caledonian Canal users so that appropriate mitigation or compensation measures could potentially be identified.

“As a significant employer contributing directly and indirectly to the Highland’s economy and wider Scottish Tourist offering, we are gravely concerned that the effects of changes in water levels can have on our sector have not been considered,” she maintained.

“Without appropriate mitigation the proposed Loch Kemp development could have devastating impacts on the economy.”

But Inverness Chamber of Commerce has outlined its support for the project in a letter from its chief executive Colin Marr.

“It is important for future generations, both in Scotland, and across the world, that we tackle the climate emergency and that we reduce climate harming emissions,” Mr Marr stated.

“If we fail to do so we are likely to see global temperature rises that will lead to mass displacement of people that will, in turn, quickly lead to thirst and starvation..”

He said the Loch Kemp project would boost the Highland and Scottish economies.

“The employment created during construction will be significant with around 350 people employed for a period of around four years,” he said.

“But of equal importance are the long-term jobs that will be created as the operation of Loch Kemp Pumped Hydro will create around 25 high quality jobs all based some distance from Inverness.”

He said under a proposed management plan, operations at the scheme would be restricted when water levels met a low threshold to prevent environmental damage.

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