Enjoyed this article very much!
In the middle of a Scottish mountain is a man-made cavern 90 metres high and 36 metres long - tall enough to stuff an entire Cathedral in its belly - which is only accessible through a kilometre-long rock tunnel. This is the home of the Cruachan Power Station. In 1921 - with one world war down and one to go - the British …
Agrreed! While in Wales in May we visited the Welsh equivalent. By the sounds of it, it's very much the same ie huge turbines in an enormous cavern big enough to house St Pauls and visitors gte to see it from an observation desk high up. On the other hand, the Welsh use a full size standard single decker bus to drive into the mountain, not some poncy little minibus! :-)
Dinorwig is also one of the stations that can be used to 'black start' the UK grid in case of a complete outage as it doesn't need external power to start up - it's the UK's biggest booster battery and jump cable set. http://www.nationalgrid.com/uk/Electricity/Balancing/services/systemsecurity/blackstart2/
Splendid indeed - the article and the subject matter.
"...but at night the same turbines are turned (using excess power) to push the water back to the top loch again, making the whole thing a huge storage battery designed to buffer between the constant generation and variable consumption of electricity."
This really shows how our attitude to risk has changed. Post war, dangerous occupations seem to have been much more tolerated. The death rate building Cruachan was roughly half that in the Glencoe massacre, but one is just a footnote and the other is live local history. By contrast, somewhere between 12 and 24 people died in the entire Channel Tunnel project - the initial prediction was 24 - and that was a project that was many times bigger.
It's an impressive achievement and the tour was interesting when we went there, but 36 deaths does cast a bit of a pall over the achievement.
Construction is often a dangerous occupation. Thanks to "Health and Safety Gone Mad" it is a bit less so nowadays, but recent budget cuts for safety inspections in the United Kingdom aren't helping.
Consequently, any built big thing probably had some people die doing it.
The science fiction novel [The Fountains of Paradise] mentions casualties in construction projects. The main character designed the Gibraltar Bridge; now he wants to build something even bigger. His Gibraltar Bridge has a memorial plaque on it, too.
Danger happens on the job site.
There are signs which say how many days since a serious accident had occurred.
To your point, the job is still just as dangerous. What makes it safer is that we have a better understanding and tools in the engineering and design.
The truth is that on any major project, you can predict with a certain degree of accuracy the risks and potential fatalities. Its still a lot safer than being an EOD tech...
Here in the States, its a shame we don't do any more 'big engineering' projects.
Here's a pint to all the men who work on these projects!
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If you hate the midges the same artifact exists in Bulgaria and was built at about the same time (early 60-es). It is the Belmeken-Sestrimo-Chaira accumulating hydroelectric. Bigger, better, located in the middle of a 2500+km sq national park with full public right of way across it (none of the wonderful british "fence me sheep grazing rights"). You can take pictures too. No plod to beat the camera out of your hands. You can even get a boat and go fishing on the main reservoir.
Though, the pictures, plod, etc are the minor differences. The big difference is what happened next.
After toying once with the idea Britain stopped. Converting to accumulation half of all those reservoirs built by victorians in the lake district (lake should really be in quotes) would have made all the discussions about windpower, etc redundant. Compared to the quite clear "stop" after the initial British project, Bulgarians continue to this day (despite a desperate shortage of money over the last 20 years). The collection capacity is now in the 100s of km runs covering most of the national park (doubles up for drinking water water collection in a few places). The most recent extension run and microhydro in the system came online last year (very neat too - small micro on a mountain stream + some pipework to exploit a 300m+ drop so you get tens of MW out of a rather measly mountain stream.
Sad really - invented in Britain, built first in Britain, then abandoned so that we can import Norwegian gas and have offensive Statoil ads around Heathrow.
Well of course. But what if they build their own bouncing bomb and take out the dam? Thousands of sheep could die.
Because terrorists would of course ignore the really vulnerable parts of the grid, and drive their truck of co-op mix a kilometre into the hillside, where there would be able to detonate it with no TV footage or "glamourous" pall of fire and smoke.
People who make rules like this demonstrate they aren't fit to make any rules.
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"No, it's for fear that the terrorists might discover that the PLCs are the same ones that are vulnerable to Stuxnet. (for instance)"
I doubt that. Terrorists are fundamentally hoodlums, seduced by opportunities to sporadically use and display violence, rather than seeking to actually have an effect. Taking out all the pumped storage in the land with some mythical cyber attack wouldn't make the slightest difference to our electricity supply, maybe a one night brown out when National Grid expected these to be available and hadn't called back on (eg) mothballed CCGT. Also, assuming that they could find out what PLC controlled the gear, how are they to know if the software is unpatched, and there's no independent protection systems? A lot of work, reconnaissance and risk, for limited to zero harm. And even if you wanted to hack the systems, the whole point is that as a non-state actor you'd do the poking around remotely.
The dismal failure of terrorists the world over to actually wage an effective war isn't for lack of hate, bombs, or intelligence, it's that they can't ween themselves off blood and bangs. It wouldn't take much to cripple the British economy with a modest number of physical attacks against wholly undefended targets, in a campaign that would be difficult to stop, cheap to mount, and would involve the entire resources of the state to give the appearance of "doing something" after the event (by which time the smart attacker would have moved on to a different flavour of undefended target). But such attacks would be unseen, undramatic in retrospective TV images, and probably wouldn't kill a soul. The IRA briefly tried a tiny bit of this, but soon gave up because they weren't systematic or smart enough to get the desired results, and they preferred murdering people to actually waging a war.
You are right about the IRA - calling the Omagh bombers "mindless thugs" is an insult to mindless thugs everywhere - but the assumption that all terrorists are pretty stupid and prefer spectacular bangs to effective action can be described in one word - "complacency".
Osama Bin Laden (if it was he who proposed it) and his attack on New York was successful beyond, I suspect, his dreams. He got the American State to overreact massively, creating a surveillance culture at home and generating great unpopularity abroad. The sheer stupidity of the American reaction in its inability to distinguish between Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iraq, was surely an unexpected bonus. He achieved his goal of making the US unpopular in the entire Middle East. And that was with an attack that had no military effectiveness whatsoever.
It may be that a successful attack on cyber infrastructure is very unlikely, and it may be that there is no risk from taking photos at Cruachan (other than a loss of postcard sales which might be the real reason). But until it happened, the idea of taking over 4 aircraft at once and flying two of them into tall buildings and two of them into military targets must have seemed extremely unlikely till it happened.
"But until it happened, the idea of taking over 4 aircraft at once and flying two of them into tall buildings and two of them into military targets must have seemed extremely unlikely till it happened."
But you can't plan and pay for defences against for all eventualities - a terrorist merely has to circumvent what is in place at its weakest links. Even after 9/11 they thought they'd slammed the door on all of that, but the underpant and shoe bombers still got through. I would suggest that a determined and careful protagonist could repeat the outcome of the 9/11 attacks without notable hinderance, because all the measures taken are largely against an identical repeat. Although the biggest terrorist victory they could now achieve would be to fool the "defenders" into wrongly shooting down a civil aircraft. The "homeland security" people have put all the infrastructure in place to do that, all the terrorist has to do is to work out a means of causing it to be used. Do you feel safer flying to the US knowing the various US air forces are sitting around on QRA, waiting for the call to go and shoot down a civilian airliner?
In the case of stopping people taking photos, would that hinder a determined attacker? No, there's plenty of publicly sold surveillance kit that you could walk in with and not arouse suspicion, and in most cases you don't need to have a permanent record, you just go and look. Do the "security" people at Cruachan have a mind wipe device to stop visitors taking away their memories, in case they might be terrorists?
"It wouldn't take much to cripple the British economy with a modest number of physical attacks against wholly undefended targets, in a campaign that would be difficult to stop, cheap to mount, and would involve the entire resources of the state to give the appearance of "doing something" after the event "
Nothing specific to Britain there. A few co-ordinated teams armed with nothing more sophisticated than petrol-powered angle grinders available for cash from all good DIY sheds...
In passing: surely a truly mothballed fossil fuel station takes more than a few hours to reinstate? Other tactics besides unmothballing would be needed to match demand and supply short term (and it's too soon for smartmeters to do demand management).
I had heard that one of the attractions of CCGT is that the systems are based on replicating a limited number of designs, so if your Son of Stuxnet attack hits one, it can hit many. I don't think finding out whose PLCs they are would be difficult at all. Getting sufficient access to the PLC code to (a) understand it (b) compomise it, may be a bit harder, but may not be impossible. Wrt independent safety system: why bother, e.g. if you can inhibit the turbine startup sequence after a given date/time, you've achieved a good result, at least till folk realise what's happening.
The dismal failure of terrorists the world over to actually wage an effective war isn't for lack of hate, bombs, or intelligence, it's that they can't ween themselves off blood and bangs.
No, more so that they (Al Qaeda at least) seem to have a strange fascination with bringing down airplanes. If they wanted "blood and bangs", a terrorist wearing a BIG explosive vest under a coat or even carrying a good sized carry-on full of explosive could easily walk into most airports and stand in line either at a ticket counter or at the security line, and detonate when the maximum number of people were around him. I imagine a few larger airports probably have something at the doors that would detect such large quantities of explosive, but if you stay away from major airports like JFK it is probably doable.
At any rate it would be easy to determine the defenses at a given airport by someone working as a cab driver surreptitiously adding some explosive residue to the outside of a fare's bag and seeing if they get stopped at the main entrance or not until they go through security.
Or, if they wanted a really soft target, wear the same explosive vest under a coat to any major sporting event. Many older stadiums are constructed almost entirely of concrete or brickwork which would greatly amplify the blast in a way airport concourses would not, and when done just before or after the event when people are crowded together like sardines could inflict massive casualties. I daresay it would bother many Americans much more if a football or baseball game was attacked in this way than if another airplane was successfully brought down, because it would be seen as more of an attack on the "real America".
I would post anonymously, but the NSA has surely already logged me with similar stuff in "private" emails in the past, so I guess I'll add to their files on me - must have been a few months since I've said anything this noteworthy so I need to keep my place on the watch lists lest I fall out of the top 10 million.
"Is everyone here forgetting the terrorist attack on the similar Dubh Ardrain facility nearby? There's some big boys out there, and some of them know how to strike and run away!"
Arf. If only Angel X was real. I've always pictured her as Mary Kiani. Sigh...
Anyway, great article Bill, and great series. More of "The Geek's Guide to..." thank you please.
"photographs are forbidden for it could damage sales figures for the souvenir books/postcards" but we can't say that so let's make up another "justification": ...fear terrorists could make use of them...
Not just that but the terrorists now represent another income stream as they too will need to buy the guide book to help them plot their fiendish mission.
North Wales has a similar installation at Dinorwig, near Llanberis. There, a former slate quarry was used as it had at least one (if not two) pre-existing lakes ready to supply the station. If it's in warm start mode it can go from 0 to full output in 12 seconds....
What you won't see a lot of however are pylons, as it's in the Snowdonia national park the station's interconnector runs under ground, with a number of fake stone farmhouses housing the heat exchanger gear.
There is a huuuuge hydro thingamy not very far from where I live: "sixteen major dams; seven power stations; a pumping station; and 225 kilometres (140 mi) of tunnels, pipelines and aqueducts"
For some reason photographs strike terror into the hearts of jobsworths everywhere. Remember the rash of totally illegal police confiscations and prohibitions directed against photographers?
A couple of years ago I was in the fancy shopping centre in Cambridge with the son of a friend. He was taking photography A Level and thought he might find some interesting shots there. Sure enough, after five minutes a uniformed jobsworth told him it was forbidden for "security reasons".
Some years ago I had occasion to visit a building near Tooley Street which had an interesting roof construction, and I thought I would take a photo to show my kid who is a structural engineer (and does roofs). Sure enough, the "security guard" told me I couldn't take a photo for "security reasons".
On the way out I decided to try again but this time I took the picture from the pavement, a metre or so further out. He came up to complain again, I pointed out I was on public land, he went away.
Jobsworths. It's something goes wrong in their heads, possibly from being dropped on them when small.
I walked the circuit of Ben Cruachan and Stob Diamh a few years ago, and my route took me to the foot of the dam and up steps then across the dam. The dam itself is impressive, given the location, let alone everything that's buried in the hillside in front of it. The only clues (apart from pylons and tracks) are the tide mark around the water's edge and the subtle hint of the whirlpools above the tunnels.
Ironic that the turbines mostly sit idle. Can't they fire them up 24x7 instead of putting bloody wind farms everywhere?
"Ironic that the turbines mostly sit idle. Can't they fire them up 24x7 instead of putting bloody wind farms everywhere?"
These pumped storage hydro schemes do the 'peak load' coverage for the grid, by storing excess power generated by base load stations (nuclear mainly and oil/gas) and releasing it when it is needed, e.g. about 6pm when everyone gets in and heats up their sotties and skirlie.
No point using them as base load...
The tramp: just another few gas bills like last winter and I'll be living out of a suitcase...
These pumped storage installations are the perfect pairing for wind power. In fact, when there is too much wind power being generated, the electricity is used to push water back uphill for use later. If these turbines were switched on 24x7 as suggested, the reservoirs would be dry in a day or two.
In Wales there is the equally impressive, IMO, Dinorwig pumped storage Hydro power scheme which delivers more power, up to 1800 MW, but for a shorter period, 6 hours. There is also the smaller Tan y Grisiau station which was actually the first pumped storage power station in Britain opening two years before Cruachan.
However Tan y Grisiau, Dinorwig and Cruachan lauded here as great British achievements are now foreign owned, Cruachan by Iberdrola of Spain and the two stations in Wales by a company jointly owned by EDF and Mitsui. I'm not sure why ownership by a foreign state controlled company, EDF is 85% owned by the French Governent is a 'good thing', whilst British government ownership of strategic assets like this is a 'bad thing'.
If it's an attraction selling nosh, then, as befits a genuine El Reg article, you should taste everything on the menu and give nosh ratings. Nosh is a key compenent of any trip, especially a techhie-type trip, and essential if you have to trek miles in the wilds, so it's likely far from alternative perveyors of haggis n' neeps, tatties and other Scots type grub.
...on a school trip, many years ago.
It is both strangely impressive and strangely unimpressive at the same time. The hardware, the cavern, the trip into the mountain etc are all great (although one of my main memories is off the minibus driver playing tunes on the thyristor-based controller on the early electric bus). But the tour itself is half-hearted and fundamentally a bit dull. It was interesting to compare against nuclear power plant tours; the impression I got from Cruachan is that they didn't really feel like they needed to try, while nuclear plants are so desperate for PR that they'll show you *anything* given the slightest encouragement.
I must go back there sometime and see it with adult eyes (and walk up to the dam, which I didn't get to do).
Incidentally, while you're there, visit Oban (a lovely town) and then hop on the ferry and spend a few days on the island of Mull. You won't regret it.
When I was a little nipper, we used to spend parts of school holiday at the Mt Buffalo Chalet in Victoria, Australia. One of the excursions offered was to the as-yet uncompleted hydro scheme. Tours through the control rooms, turbine halls and at least one tunnel. All very impressive for an 8-y.o. (who was constantly listening for the trickle of water coming down the tunnel behind him)
The pump storage at Ffestiniog pre-dated this slightly (commissioned 1963), but it uses separate pumps and turbines. It was built to compliment the nuclear power at Trawsfynydd.
The one at Dinorwig (which uses reversible pump/tubines like Cruachan) is just huge though, and has some impressive stats: 0 to 1.3GW in 12seconds flat. Also It can also be used to "Black Start" the grid.
I was lucky enough to go to Dinorwig for business reasons and had an individual tour of the plant by a very enthusiastic member of staff. I didn't even know what a "Black Start" power station was until that tour, the surge pond is the most impressive thing in my mind, when they shut the valves that allow water to flow to the turbines a back pressure flows up towards the top lake. But the top of the pipe that lets the water flow to the turbines is open, and water from the back pressure cascades up into the air before settling in the surge pond.
Falls of Cruachan station is only open during the summer (check the timetable) and is request only stop so make sure you tell the on train staff that you are getting off at the station and be early for the return train so the driver can see you waiting and use the help point/phone to call to say you there.
Does it take less power to pump water in one pipe to the top, or less to pump ing stages to intermediate pools on the way up? I'm thinking the huge mass of water of a single stage pump would take some shifting. With multiple stages you could use much smaller pumps, but would that be more efficient?
If you do it in stages you could slap in a load of either wind turbines or even just wind powered pumps to save even more energy in the lock. Just have them whirring away pumping water from the bottom to the top.
A wee bit of the Bond film "The World is Not Enough" was filmed up at Cruachan.
As someone else mentioned, the train station is a request stop, and the train up from Glasgow splits in two at Crianlarich so check you're in the correct carriage and make sure the ticket collector knows where you're going. IME the staff on the West Highland line are good at paying attention and helping out visitors. By the way, if you get to Cruachan by public transport or bicycle you get free entry.
> One tends to think of hydroelectric power as a modern conceit,
Apparently the first hydroelectric installation was also a British affair - at Lord Armstrong's house (well, mansion really) Cragside in Northumberland, in 1878.
I'm surprised there aren't more of these things, it would seem a good way of coupling supply/demand differences. I guess they aren't as efficient on a small scale and suitable sites must be limited.
" I guess they aren't as efficient on a small scale"
Many (most?) electrical (as distinct from electronic) machines are more efficient as they get bigger. But efficiency doesn't matter too much if the input doesn't cost anything and is unlimited. Rain in hilly areas doesn't cost much and often feels like it's unlimited.
Smaller scale hydro on the tens of kW scale seems to be having a bit of a renaissance but I'm not sure it's relevant to the bigger picture.
"suitable sites must be limited"
www.fhc.co.uk is the Welsh equivalent, in Llanberis though properly referred to as Dinorwig. The visitor centre caff there was excellent last time I was there (far too long ago, must go again).
More of this kind of thing please. Both the articles and the electricity storage.
I'd be interested to hear from anyone with current knowledge of the state of generation infrastructure in the UK as to whether the line about restarting the National Grid really has much truth in it. I'm sure that the pumped storage systems could be used that way, but in fact would they? If the grid was in such dire circumstances that it needed a restart, would the pumped storage systems be full or already drained?
I have a vague recollection garnered from years back when I mixed with the heavy-power fraternity that most large power stations were self-starting, being built with some hefty diesel and gas turbine auxiliary generators so that they could be more or less bootstrapped by some handy chappy with a starting-handle to get the starter motor for the starter motors ticking over. You would think that would be a fairly obvious precaution, after all. If there's going to be a major outage, presuming that the grid remains intact so as to allow remote pumped storage to get, say Drax steaming again seems a bit of a risk. But then, since it's under the control of politicians at the end of the day, maybe I shouldn't be surprised.
My understanding - and I may be a bit out of date and/or innacurate - is that there is a clear plan for how to blackstart the grid, and Cruachan (along with some others) is part of it.
When the loch is totally full, there is enough water to produce 440MW for about a day. Of that, 12 hours worth is reserved for blackstart and blackstart only (this also makes sure the loch never normally gets emptied, which might upset the enviroment people).
Diesel gennys provide enough power to run the starter motors and open the sluice gates. Cruachan can then export power to other stations. As these stations come online, demand jumps suddenly; Blackstart stations are fitted with better than normal frequency stabilization hardware so they can manage this.
Plants like drax or longannet have several generating trains, each capable of 660MW, and each requiring about 200MW to start (coal driers, coal crushers, draft fans for the fluidised bed) and cannot usually start their first train with local power, so need power from a blackstart station. Once online, they can provide power to start additional stations. At the same time, demand is switched in, bit by bit, too keep pace with the generating capacity.
Each blackstart capable station is expected to be able to begin exporting power within two hours of being asked to start by the National Grid. It should be able to do so at least three times in quick succession, in case the grid trips while trying to power up, and it should be able to continue running without additional fuel deliveries (less relevant for Cruachan) for several days.
>> as to whether the line about restarting the National Grid really has much truth in it.
>> If the grid was in such dire circumstances that it needed a restart, would the pumped storage systems be full or already drained?
Well before my time, but my father spent his life in power engineering so knew many of the details ...
We have had a near complete blackout in this country, as have others (the USA has a particularly famous one that started with a relay tripping at Niagra Falls). Interestingly, when I looked them up a while ago, I found out that they are more common than I'd thought !
Anyway, back to this country.
At the time, most of the infrastructure had been designed on the assumption that "that can't possibly happen can it ?", with the result that there was little black start capability. After that, there was a massive retrofit programme to add gas turbines to many power stations specifically for black starting. These also had the useful extra feature of being useful rapid start devices for lopping peak demands a bit.
I'd decline in favor of one with one of the engineers. I'd get far more fascinating information in the history, as well as a lot more respect for the efforts to keep the thing running.
For, I am of the "better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it school". Blame if on personal military experience many times over.
So, I'll depart remembering 35 dead, sniffing a bit over the 36th in derision.
Note the capacity . Roughly 1/2 a GW for 22 hours with a 12 hour reserve. You get a feel for how damm big you need to go to get serious storage and as others have noted that's already got as much off peak storage as needed. You'll want one like that near the coast to store all that wind energy..
A company written up in the Engineer remote manages quite a lot of micro hydro schemes in the UK (thats water power < 1MW). Most have no storage and they reckon there's about 1GW they can build out at the present feed in tariff. Interestingly they say most of the turbines are decades old but the controls are all broadband linked back to their office in central London.
Note the ageConstruction started shortly after Calder Hall nuke station opened in 1956. Calder Hall is closed but hydro (if properly constructed) can last indefinitely, with refurbs and upgrades. The Hoover dam is over the century. BTW A lot of these have "pad" bearings which have demonstrated almost unlimited life and close to zero wear rates. However this is not factored into the Treasury ROI calculations. I doubt any reactor will be running > 50 years after it's built unless someone just tore up the safety manual.
In the caverns I've been in, you can only see the top of the generators -- the turbines are below floor level. I've always thought it might be more impressive if you could see the full height to the device.
And by the way, I'm sure there used to be postcard pictures of the cavern. Wonder if anyone is selling copies of the postcards now?
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