Capturing Power in the Glens
In the rainy Scottish Highlands, home to Great Britain's highest mountains and largest inland lakes, some 80 dams span the valleys in testament to an earlier generation's vision of capturing then-elusive power from the abundant water of the glens.
(Related: See photos of Scotland)
The hydropower effort began in earnest here in the midst of World War II, when Winston Churchill's government saw expanding access to electricity as a national security imperative. In these rural valleys, only one farm in six had electricity, and the situation was worse in small agricultural holdings worked by tenant farmers; only one in 100 of these so-called "crofts" had power.
Today, of course, virtually all of Scotland has access to electricity, and the hydropower system established six decades ago provides 10 percent of the region's power. Even with windmills rising quickly in the countryside and offshore, these dams and 60 associated power stations still provide a large measure of the United Kingdom's renewable energy.
(Related: "Hydropower: Going With the Flow")
The Scottish hydro story echoes with relevance for a world that is struggling to find clean, safe sources of energy. The same battles pitting natural preservation against economic development that mark today's drive for new energy were waged in these valleys nearly 60 years ago. Scottish and Southern Energy's (SSE) Sloy Power Station dam (map) on Scotland's storied Loch Lomond, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) northwest of Glasgow, illustrates well the choices that were made. The 185-foot (56-meter) water barrier, 1,170 feet (357 meters) long, seen here with a white rush of water at center as engineers test the main purge valve, is only a portion of the infrastructure built to generate power here. A system of tunnels and aqueducts diverts water into the system from areas well to the north and south.
In this altered landscape, whose beauty still endures, it may be possible to discern answers to today's energy conflicts in how Scotland harnessed the power of water.
—Marianne Lavelle, with reporting by Toby Smith
(Read about Scotland work's with National Geographic on a £10 million (approximately $16 million) competition for wave or tidal power innovation, the Saltire Prize, or watch a video here. Here is the Scottish government's website for the competition.)