Thursday, 24 September 2009

Sustainability in Action

Today exceeded all expectations.

I had long wanted to see Kinlochleven and its hydro electric plant. Built during the 1900’s it was one of the first of Scotland’s many hydro electric schemes. The small hydro electric plant originally powered British Alcan’s aluminium smelting works which was a major employer during its heyday. Out of a community of about 1000 people, over 800 were employed within its gates. It has been closed since June 2000, modern day economies of scale having relocated the smelting works elsewhere. But the hydro electric plant remains, and what a wonderful feat of engineering it is.

Starting at the power station the path follows the six vast water pipes upwards. The pipes appear to climb into the hills. Of course, they are not climbing, they are falling: six huge pipes, maybe three feet or more in diameter, falling 300 metres from the Blackwater dam to the electricity generator below. The pipes carry 20 tonnes of water a second, powering a 20 MW power station.

The climb is steep with the pipes in view, but what follows is every bit as remarkable. From the dam to the pipes is a conduit carrying the water some 5 miles down the valley. It is a long but pretty trudge amongst the beautiful Scottish hillsides until the dam is reached. Sitting beneath its vast and almost vertical wall one cannot help but speculate as to the havoc that would be wreaked if it failed to hold its powerful charge.

Close to the dam is a small graveyard remembering the navvies who lost their lives during its construction. It is poignant and atmospheric. In December 2008 the 100th anniversary of the deaths was remembered with flowers and wreaths. The unknown navvy, which in truth is many unknown navvies, is remembered lest we forget the price that was paid for this sustainable power.

Kinlochleven’s hydro electric plant today looks more like a Victorian mill than a power station, but the splendour of its engineering, and the sustainable path it has cleared for others to follow, is a wonderful legacy for those who worked on it.

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