‘Hollow Mountain’ power: Drax starts planning for second pumped hydro storage station inside Scottish peak

'Hollow Mountain' power: Drax starts planning for second pumped hydro storage station inside Scottish peak

Proposed 600MW plant would be built next to existing pumped hydro station inside Argyll’s highest mountain and help provide critical balancing services to grid

Drax has announced it has started the planning process for a new underground power plant at its existing pumped storage hydro power station in Argyll that will more than double the facility’s generating capacity.

The UK power company said the project would be built within a hollowed-out cavern just to the east of an operational 440GW pumped storage hydro storage station inside Argyll’s highest mountain, Ben Cruachan.

Drax said the proposed 600MW power plant would provide “critical” storage capacity that would help balance Scotland’s electricity grid as more renewable generation comes online and the country works towards it aim of achieving net zero emissions by 2045.

The project will generate enough power for around a million homes and bring the overall capacity of its ‘Hollow Mountain’ Cruachan power station to 1.04GW, it added.

Drax CEO Will Gardiner said the project was evidence of the company’s commitment to tackling climate change and supporting the decarbonisation of the energy system. “Our plans to expand Cruachan will unlock more renewable electricity to power homes and businesses across the country, and support hundreds of new jobs in rural Scotland,” he said.

The pumped storage hydro station will act like a “giant water battery” for Scotland’s energy grid, Drax said, helping to cut energy costs by reducing the need for wind farms to be paid to turn off when they are generating excess power.

The station will use reversible turbines to pump water from Loch Awe to a reservoir on the mountain side during periods of low energy use and high renewables generation, Drax explained. The stored water would then release power back through the turbines to quickly generate power when the grid requires additional generation.

“Last year, the UK’s lack of energy storage capacity meant wind farms had to be paid to turn off and we lost out on enough renewable power to supply a million homes,” Gardiner added. “We need to stop renewable power from going to waste by storing it, and Drax is ready to move mountains to do just that.”

More than one million tonnes of rock would need to be excavated from Ben Cruachan to create the cavern where the second station would be built, creating nearly 900 jobs in rural areas across Scotland during the construction phase, Drax said.

Politicians welcomed Drax’s decision to seek planning approval for the project, with local MP Brendan O’Hara pointing to the employment opportunities that could be unlocked by the scheme, as well as the project’s potential to help Scotland meet its climate goals.

“I am delighted that Drax is progressing plans to expand the Ben Cruachan site,” he said. “This will support 900 rural jobs and create a pumped storage facility that will be able to provide enough renewable energy to power a million homes while helping us reach our 2045 net zero target, it is great news for this area and for Scotland.”

His comments were echoed by Jenni Minto, MSP for Argyll & Bute. “Investment in new pumped storage hydro capacity could greatly enhance the flexibility and resilience of the electricity network and help us move towards meeting our ambitious global climate change targets,” she said. “In the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow, it’s more vital than ever that we come up with innovative solutions to the climate emergency and ensure that future generations to reap the rewards of Scotland’s vast renewable potential.”

Drax confirmed it will launch a public consultation for the project this summer on its project website and said it was planning further consultation events later this year, with the hope that a planning application can be submitted to Scottish Ministers early next year.

For the project to move ahead, it must receive consent from Ministers and then secure a market support mechanism from the UK government.

Drax warned the lack of a policy and market support mechanism framework for long-duration storage solutions was hindering the roll out of new pumped hydro storage in the UK, noting that no plants had been built since the 1980s despite their “critical role” in grid decarbonisation.  

Developed during the 1960s, the existing plant at Cruachan was the first reversible pumped storage hydro system of its scale ever built, it added.

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