COP26: Malcolm Turnbull visits Scotland’s iconic ‘hollow mountain’

Malcolm Turnbull, leading IHA’s delegation at the COP26 climate conference, has visited Scotland’s largest pumped storage hydropower station to hear about the technology’s role in the UK energy transition.

The former Prime Minister of Australia co-chaired the International Forum on Pumped Storage Hydropower and launched the construction of the biggest pumped hydro scheme in the southern hemisphere when he was in office.

On his visit to Drax Group’s iconic ‘Hollow Mountain’ Cruachan Power Station with IHA’s CEO, Eddie Rich, Mr Turnbull heard about how new pumped storage capacity will help unlock the UK’s renewable power potential.

Cruachan is an underground pumped storage power station built inside a hollowed-out cavern 1km inside Ben Cruachan – Argyll’s highest mountain.  

Pumped storage expansion plans

The plant acts as a giant water battery by pumping water from Loch Awe to an upper reservoir on the mountainside to store excess power from the grid. The stored water is then released through turbines to generate power in response to higher demand. This helps stop wind farms being turned off when they are generating excess power.  

Earlier this year Drax published plans to build a new underground pumped storage hydro power station at Cruachan – more than doubling the electricity generating capacity at the site.  

The UK today has about 4 GW of storage, of which 3 GW comes from pumped hydro. This is set to expand in the coming years, with around 5 GW of new capacity currently planned or awaiting consent, including at Cruachan.

Without increasing long duration storage capacity, the UK risks wasting electricity generated from wind power. According to Drax, enough wind power to supply a million UK homes went unused in the UK in 2020 because there isn’t enough long-duration storage.

‘A tried and tested technology’

Speaking on his visit to Cruachan, Mr Turnbull said: “Within the climate crisis the world is facing an ignored crisis – how to ensure that we do not fall back on fossil fuels when the wind isn’t blowing, and the sun isn’t shining. We need green energy security solutions.”

During his time in office, Mr Turnbull announced the construction of Snowy Hydro 2.0, the biggest pumped hydro scheme in the southern hemisphere. “I commissioned the Snowy 2.0 to prevent blackouts in Australia – the biggest such project in the southern hemisphere,” he said.

“It was fascinating to visit Drax’s Cruachan Power Station in Scotland. It reminds me that this is a tried and tested technology. With Drax’s expansion plans for the project it can also be modern and, with the right market focus on energy security and balance, affordable.  

“The 5 GW of such projects in the pipeline in Scotland are central to deliver a net zero energy system in the UK.”

‘Balancing Britain’s power system’

Ian Kinnaird, Drax’s Scottish Assets Director, said: “We were very happy to welcome Mr Turnbull to Cruachan so he can see how this iconic power station is playing a critical role in balancing Britain’s power system and enabling more renewables to come online.  

“Our exciting plans to more than double the generating capacity of Cruachan underlines Drax’s commitment to tackling the climate crisis and supporting the energy system as it continues to decarbonise. Expanding Cruachan will unlock more renewable electricity to power homes and businesses across the country, and support hundreds of new jobs in rural Scotland.”

Eddie Rich, CEO of IHA added: “No national electricity grid has been able to decarbonise without a significant element of hydropower. Projects like Cruachan demonstrate how easy it is to back-up our wind energy resources in the UK with other renewables. Gas is not the only storage option. As they say ‘water, wind and sun get the job done’. I hope to see other pumped storage come online in Scotland in the next decade.”

The expanded Cruachan power station could be up and running as soon as 2030, subject to a successful planning application, with the project supporting around 900 jobs during construction. But Drax says the investment will require the UK Government coming forward with an updated policy and market support mechanism.  

Find out more about the proposed Cruachan 2 hydropower storage power station.

Pumped storage forum

The International Forum on Pumped Storage Hydropower, which Mr Turnbull co-chairs alongside the U.S. Department of Energy, released a series of reports in September 2021 about the need for pumped storage in the clean energy transition.  

The forum is a coalition of 13 governments convened by the International Hydropower Association (IHA) and involving more than 70 multilateral banks, research institutes, NGOs and public and private companies.

Leading IHA’s delegation at COP26, Mr Turnbull and Mr Rich have been taking the forum’s recommendations to governments and other stakeholders at the event in Glasgow, a short drive from Cruachan.

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