Dr Edward Thomas Jones, Lecturer in Economics Bangor Business School on the need for new bold and innovative developments
This article first appeared in the Daily Post's business section on Wednesday, 30 November 2022.
Last week I had the pleasure of visiting First Hydro Dinorwig hydro power station. This visit, hosted by the Chartered Management Institute Cymru, reminded me of the major feat of engineering that has quietly been contributing to the UK’s energy security since 1984. When it was built, Dinorwig power station was regarded as one of the world’s most imaginative engineering and environmental projects. The plant is almost entirely concealed within the mountain, making it invisible from outside.
The electricity system in Wales and around the world is changing. UK emissions have fallen significantly since 1990 with key contributions from renewable energy generation, such as wind and marine energy. There is likely to be greater demand for electricity in the future given the increased use of electric vehicles and manufacturing firms making more use of advanced energy-intensive technologies. To meet this demand and allow the country to meet its “net zero” emissions target, we are likely to see more renewable projects in the future. However, while renewable projects are great at producing clean energy, they do create a challenge for our electricity system. This became evident during the recent pandemic.
The closure of businesses during covid pushed demand for electricity down while unusual weather meant the electricity grid was simultaneously flooded with record solar generation and strong output from wind farms. The combination of increased supply and lower demand threatened the stability of the electricity system. Dinorwig power station was crucial in bringing stability to the system. The pumped storage station has reservoirs at different heights and can absorb excess electricity by using it to pump water uphill. The water is stored in the upper reservoir and released through turbines to generate electricity when there is stronger demand.
Despite becoming operational over 40 years ago, Dinorwig remains an essential part of the UK’s electricity system because of its ability to absorb excess supply of energy and meet unexpected demand. Nuclear can take days and coal power plants take hours to reach the necessary temperatures for energy generation, which is too slow to address unexpected or rapid power shortages.
Countries in Asia and Europe are pushing ahead with new pumped storage plants as governments recognise how the technology can help keep grids stable as more intermittent renewables are constructed. Developers in the UK want to build new pumped storage plants and are hopefully their important role during the pandemic will incentivise support from the government.
North Wales economy is still reeling from the effects of the pandemic and, along with the UK, is facing a recession. Developing new hydro power stations could help kick-start the economy; during my visit I saw first-hand how Dinorwig made use of the local supply chain and supported jobs across Gwynedd, boosting the local economy.
It cost £425 million to build the power station at Dinorwig – the largest civil engineering contract ever awarded by the UK government at the time. We should take inspiration from the engineering marvel located in North Wales and take on new bold and innovative projects to help move the economy forward and reduce our impact on the planet.