What happens if the wind isn't blowing when people pop the kettle on for a cup of tea during half time of the Scotland match in the Euros?

One of the significant drawbacks of transitioning Scotland's energy mix to renewables is the intermittency of supply. While fossil fuels could cater for such demand surges, a renewables-heavy energy mix requires energy storage projects to be developed alongside – able to absorb excess energy at periods of low demand (e.g. during the night) and discharge energy back into the grid for those times when electricity demand shoots up (I think that's stretching the football analogy too far).

Pumped storage is not new – the Cruachan facility has been operating for over 50 years (https://www.visitcruachan.co.uk/history/).

The Red John Pumped Storage Hydro project above Loch Ness was granted consent by the Scottish Ministers on 7 June 2021. The consent (under section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989) also granted deemed planning permission for the project. Details of the consent can be found here.

The project is supported by the NPF3, Scottish Planning Policy and the Highland Council Local Development Plan, however it was subject to a number of objections and a public local inquiry (PLI) had to be held as the Highland Council objected to the project.

The EIA Report covered the following areas,  some being more significant issues than others:

  • Landscape and Visual Impacts (LVI) – The Highland Council objected on this basis. Despite the short and medium LVI of the head pond embankment during the construction period (estimated at 6 years) and the initial years of operations, the Scottish Ministers agreed with the findings of the PLI, that in the long term the project would become integrated into the landscape and could be appropriately screened by mitigation tree planting. The Reporter at the PLI also made the frank comment that: "[adverse visual effects are] to be expected with any project of this scale which cannot be completely hidden in the landscape despite the mitigation and enhancement measures which have been designed";
  • Aquatic ecology - Ness Salmon Fishery Board's objection based on impacts on salmon migration was withdrawn after legal agreement was reached with the developer;
  • Terrestrial ecology – despite the permanent loss of 7-8% of ancient woodland on the site, the Scottish Ministers concluded the increase in native woodlands (and decrease in commercial woodlands) would allow longer term benefits to balance the loss;
  • Traffic and Transport – The local community groups were particularly concerned with the increase in construction traffic heading through their communities and the disruption this could cause during 6 years of construction. These were resolved by agreements between the developer and the community groups and appropriate conditions on the consent;
  • Forestry;
  • Ornithology;
  • Flood risk;
  • Water environment;
  • Archaeology/cultural heritage;
  • Socio-economics and tourism; and
  • Noise and vibration.

The Scottish Ministers also had to carry out an appropriate assessment of the potential impacts on 6 European protected sites under the Habitats Regulations.

Other concerns/objections (including those relating to footpaths and mountaineering safety) were resolved through appropriate conditions to the consent (42 conditions in total).

Interestingly, due to the potential delays from COVID-19 the Scottish Ministers allowed commencement of development within 6 years (as opposed to the usual 5 years).

It's worth briefly mentioning that the section 36 consent is not the only consent that the Red John project has needed to acquire. Other consents include: an acquisition of water rights order (from Scottish Ministers); controlled activities licence (from SEPA), registration with SEPA, and other property rights and agreements with landowners.

One such agreement was with SSE. Loch Ness is also the feed reservoir for SSE's Foyers Pumped Storage Hydro project and SSE were concerned about possible impacts on their scheme and a weir that SSE were responsible to manage. SSE withdrew its objection after reaching agreement with the developer on maintenance of the weir and that the Red John project could not operate at certain water levels in Loch Ness.

There will certainly be more pumped storage hydro schemes (and battery storage facilities) needed to deal with the growing dependence on renewables and it can seem challenging to potential developers. The Red John project demonstrates that, given the nature of such developments, there will opposition and the need for developers to cooperate and engage with objectors early to get matters resolved (through consent conditions or private agreements) is an important part of the consenting process.