Act: Inspiration

Just Transition – Part Four: the Highlands of Hydro

November 30, 2018

In a speech in Glasgow on 24 Nov 1946, the renowned wartime Labour Secretary of State for Scotland, Tom Johnston, painted a vision of the future. In his new role as chairman of the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board, he anticipated a time when water power in Scotland would equal “the total amount of power at present produced from steam-coal stations, with a surplus enough left to electrify the railways and provide power to introduce any number of new industries in the Highlands.”

Across the political spectrum, Johnston is regarded as a towering figure in 20th century Scotland. But he is perhaps best remembered for his pioneering project, partly inspired by FDR’s New Deal, to bring “power to the glens.”

In some respects, the vision he outlined in 1946 has been realised. the vision he outlined in 1946 has been realised. Coal fired power stations no longer operate in Scotland, whilst hydroelectric power from the north continues to be a significant part of the country’s energy mix.

The achievements of the Hydro Board rank among the most successful and concentrated single instances of energy transitions. As the Scottish Government prepares to convene its commission on a Just Transition — a project to end reliance on fossil fuels in a socially equitable manner — a clear precedent does exist.


The scheme was not without its detractors – the high costs of connection and competing strategic priorities proved controversial in the early days of the Hydro Board, with plenty of landowners and other vested interests predicting ‘ruination’. Yet, by 1965, 54 main power stations and 78 dams had been built, providing a total generating capacity of over 1,000 megawatts.

To put this in perspective, that amounts to roughly the same capacity as one of Scotland’s two large nuclear power stations today. To achieve this, 300 kilometres of rock tunnel had to be excavated and a similar length of aqueducts and pipelines constructed. In addition, 32,000 kilometres of electricity network would be required to distribute the electricity throughout the north of Scotland.

The results were transformative and far reaching. By the early 1970s, 90 percent of remote crofting households were connected to the grid.

As well as providing cheap power across this vast swathe of exceptionally challenging terrain, the Hydro Board was also instrumental in wider economic and social development. A quarter of the 400 roads required to build the dams would go on to be transferred to local authorities. Several light industry projects became viable and the board’s activities also paved the way for development of the modern tourist industry, the mainstay of the region’s economy to this day.

One of the first of these projects broke ground at Loch Sloy in the hills beyond the small villages of Arrochar and Tarbet in 1945. Whilst the imposing concrete of the 56 metre high Sloy Dam is impressive enough, the engineering feats that are hidden from view are equally so. In order to maximise capacity, water was diverted into Loch Sloy from areas to the north and south via tunnels and aqueducts, including a 3 kilometre tunnel through 985 metre high Ben Vorlich.

Commissioned in 1950, Sloy Power Station remains the largest conventional hydroelectric power station in the UK, and can be operating at full load within five minutes of a standing start, hence its use during times of peak demand.

Duncan MacLachlan, an engineer who lives in a nearby housing development originally constructed for Hydro Board workers, has seen the impact of the scheme across generations. He’s part of what he describes as a “hydro family” – his father moved to the area to work on construction of the dam, and was latterly engaged in maintaining the lines transmitting power to rural communities.

Our own family lived in a cottage by Loch Fyne that had paraffin lamps, log burning fires, and it was all traditional, so electricity going into households like that were transformative,” he recalls.

I’m part of that whole generation brought up on the benefits of hydroelectricity, it was a good thing for communities. We had a big influx of families into the Arrochar and Tarbet area because of hydro generation, all the work of civil engineering, and services that went on alongside that, which gave a boost to the community and the area.”

The Loch Sloy dam power station at Inveruglas on Loch Lomond

Sustainable Economy

While the community’s past has been shaped by hydro, part of its future sustainability is pegged to water power too.

In comparison to 150 megawatt Sloy, the new Arrochar Community Hydro Scheme, opened in May 2018 provides a relatively modest 125 kilowatts. But Duncan, who is Chairman of the Arrochar and Tarbet Community Development Trust, remains enthused about its potential as a community asset.

Up a steep hillside above the shore of Loch Long, not far from where her older big sister sits at Sloy, the scheme, which runs a turbine off a fast-flowing burn, lies just a matter of metres away from power lines that link into the national grid. It is projected to generate £76,000 each year, and its 402,000 kilowatt hours will provide enough power to meet the equivalent demand from 130 medium use households annually.

Crucially, in contrast to the seasonal tourist trade on which the local economy is so dependent, Arrochar Community Hydro Scheme offers a revenue stream that is constant. Indeed, unlike the tourists, it thrives in the dreich damp days of which visitors are seldom fond.

This cyclic economy for the people living in the area is very noticeable because a lot people who are in low paid and seasonal jobs are in a downer over the winter, because they’re not getting the same level of income,” explains Duncan.

The better off families and businesses will literally close up shop and go off to the sun in the winter months, so there’s a double whammy there, and for clubs and groups and social events, again that’s got an impact as to whether they make money, or whether they’re loss making and whether they’re able to carry them on year on year.”

We needed some kind of sustainable income source that would allow us to smooth out all the peaks and troughs.”

As a remedy to these fluctuations in the prosperity of the local economy, funds from the hydro scheme will eventually be channelled into the community campus — The Three Villages Hall — which in recent years has expanded to fill gaps in local services, including a post office and café. All part of a steady long-term strategy to build up the resilience of the community.

You are able to do more community developments the more experienced you are: the more assets, the more collateral you’ve got in order to raise money and funds and so on,” explains Duncan.

In addition to support from Community Energy Scotland, Arrochar Communtiy Hyrdro Scheme was developed in partnership with Energy4All, a family of 24 independent renewable-energy cooperatives, with a strong network of schemes and shareholders from Sussex to Sutherland. Its share offers are extremely popular and it also provides a collective economy of scale which is invaluable in providing communities with good, consistent tariffs for the electricity they produce, in addition to motivation:

It does fill you with enthusiasm for the whole project, knowing that some other communities can benefit somewhere down the line,” notes Duncan.

Although small in scale, it is hoped that winning power from the flow of the plentiful fast-running water, so abundant in this damp, mountainous, corner of the world, will offer a building block to improve the lot of the community it serves:

I would like to think that we will grow some more jobs out of it … We’re relying very much on the council and the council is cutting services left right and centre,” he adds.

Duncan MacLachlan, of the Arrochar Community Hydro Scheme

Community Energy

Across Scotland, the installed capacity of community energy stood at 81 megatwatts in 2017. This includes a range of different models and scales. It’s a popular concept too: three quarters of consumers would be interested in joining a community energy scheme if the government made it easier (71 percent).

Of course, community energy companies ultimately exist at the whim of the market. And although feed-in tariffs make access to the National Grid lucrative and sustainable for most, there is a ceiling, around about the capacity of the Arrochar scheme, and above which the companies that control the grid are not obliged to provide connections.

Herman Scheer, the celebrated champion of the feed-in tariff laws that resulted in Germany adding no less than 45,000 megawatts of renewable generating capacity in ten years, stated unequivocally that uncapped, guaranteed, connection to the grid was fundamental to this achievement. In that decade, the transition from big centralised power stations to numerous smaller local producers saw 100 billion Euros invested from multiple small to medium projects, while big power companies in Germany invested less than 10 billion over the same period.

There’s also the question of the distribution network itself. Not far from Arrochar are the renowned water systems built to take drinking water from Loch Kartine to Glasgow. Opened by Queen Victoria in 1859, this miraculous feat of civil engineering is still in operation, and is still in public hands. It remains a source of considerable pride.

Although the future of small-scale community energy may be bright, the construction of utility networks by communities or local authorities would, based on current policy, require a complete restructuring of most aspects of the UK’s energy industry.

This is where public service union Unison has intervened in the just transition debate. Although they do not represent workers in energy production or engineering, they have weighed in with with the aim of reviving traditions of municipal ownership, a stance that reflects their profile in local government and the “white label” utilities sector.

Stephen Smellie, Depute Convener of Unison Scotland, outlines their position:

Local authorities could do much more, in the way their predecessors did in the Victorian era, they were the ones who created the big energy companies. The gas industry was built by local authorities, before they were eventually nationalised. And there’s no reason why we can’t think about how we could municipalise energy,” he points out.

We need to involve local people in the answers to their own problems, and there’s no better way of doing that than at a local level.”

A test of the Scottish Government’s commitment to a just transition for energy networks— whether at a community or a municipal level – will come when it delivers on its commitment to creating a public energy company offering retail energy supply by the end of this current Parliament (in 2021).

The company would follow examples already laid out in several English cities such as Nottingham and Leeds. In its most basic form, it would offer consumers energy as close to cost price as possible. As currently outlined, it could expand towards energy generation and direct supply.

Green New Deal

But difficult realities on the ground do not currently point towards a revival of municipal empowerment in Scotland. Despite being the nation with the largest local authorities in Europe, councils in Scotland are able to raise very little of their own revenue directly, and are struggling with the ongoing impact of austerity. Yet what they do still have, in addition to large workforces, are extensive property portfolios. Therefore, as Stephen points out:

If we had a much more ambitious and progressive plan to make all these buildings energy efficient, to put solar panels wherever we can, to generate electricity, we could use some of the land we own for windmills and other structures … put in district heating schemes, we could actually become a proper generating company, which could sell energy to local residents to generate themselves.”

With a bit of imagination and a bit of technical knowhow, there’s no reason why we couldn’t use the assets that we’ve already got to benefit this whole agenda and at the same time save money for the council. As well as doing the white label marketing and distribution arrangements it would significantly reduce the carbon footprint of any local community,” he explains.

In Germany, where 284 municipalities have taken their energy grids back into public hands in recent years, examples of what Arrochar hopes to achieve at a village level, are already happening in towns and cities. Profits from renewables are being channelled back into services for communities, such as kindergartens. Local citizens are given the opportunity to become shareholders in such schemes.

Across the world, whether in Los Angeles, or Norway, a key factor in determining whether decisive and timely steps can be taken towards rapid decarbonisation of energy supply, is public ownership. Yet in the UK, which has marched further than any other country in Europe towards privatisation of every aspect of the sector, the barriers are immense. The combined political will, financial resources, and broader vision required to surmount then cannot be understated.

The barriers, and blind-insistence on market solutions, lie at both ends of the supply chain – on North Sea production platforms and in the thousands of poorly insulated, fuel impoverished households, where pensioners and children in the nation’s poorest communities, struggle for warmth. Despite the country’s cold climate and energy riches around a quarter of households in Scotland are in fuel poverty.

Like Labour’s policy of nationalising the grid unveiled during the last general election campaign, a new publicly owned Scottish energy company would not, in and of itself, solve any of the immense systemic challenges involved in achieving a just transition. The twin objectives of providing cheap energy to tackle fuel poverty, and a transformed network of decentralised, democratically accountable supply, do not necessarily work in tandem. A properly resourced common plan, a Green New Deal is required.

Research by economist Robert Pollin contends that a Green New Deal programme would require investment in energy efficiency and clean energy of between 1.5 and 2 percent of global GDP every year and that this would drive down global carbon emissions by 40 percent within twenty years. In Scotland, this would amount to £3.41billion, roughly equivalent to the Scottish Government’s current education spend.

While it remains to be seen whether Scotland’s politicians have the boldness to surmount these challenges, to commit the resources and confront all the vested interests that stand in the way of such radical change, the precedent is there. It can be seen to this day in thousands of remote highland households offered “light and hope” by the Hydro Board in the previous century, in place of chronic emigration and decline.

All images by Alan McCredie

Chris Silver

Christopher Silver is the author of a book on Scottish culture and media: Demanding Democracy, the co-editor of a collection of writing and art that emerged from the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence Inspired by Independence, and the producer of Scotland Yet (Rough Justice Films) and Two Minute Manifesto (Traverse Theatre). His first play, Forsaken, toured the highlands and islands in 2015. With bylines in Newsweek, Prospect, the Herald, Scotland on Sunday, the Times Education Supplement, the National, openDemocracy, and the Scottish Review of Books, he writes on politics, media and culture.

Tags: clean energy transition, community energy projects, Hydropower, just transition