(Picture: Owen Law)
The most recent activity I have been writing about in regard to my main characters is a tour of the hydro-electric power station at Dinorwig, Llanberis. Despite the collapse, it's still in use! Dinorwig was constructed during the 70s and early 80s on the site of the old slate quarry, which had closed down in 1969. It is what is known as a 'pumped-storage' power station, which means that water is stored at a height above the station itself in a reservoir on top of the Elidir Mountain, known as Llyn Marchlyn Mawr. Energy is generated by releasing this water down pipes which drive turbines inside the mountain, using the kinetic energy of the descending liquid to produce electricity. The water is then released into Llyn Peris below, where it is captured and pumped back up the mountain, where it is stored again. The advantage of this system is that Dinorwig can therefore meet surges in demand in the National Grid at a rapid rate, surges which would otherwise have to be taken up by conventional power stations. An additional capacity of 1330 to 1590 GWh would be needed each year to generate this power, which would mean even more carbon dioxide emissions from conventional power stations (according to Wikipedia). Originally, Dinorwig was supposed to be part of a brand-new network which would include newly-constructed nuclear power stations. As these are economically inflexible, as they need to run at full output all the time, the resulting power produced at night-time would have to be found a home. At present, Dinorwig buys up surplus power from the Grid during the night, and uses this to pump the water back up the hill by putting the turbines into reverse. However, the new nuclear power stations were never built, so now Dinorwig buys up power form the grid produced by the other types of 'hot' stations instead, such as coal, gas as well as existing nuclear power stations.
There are six turbines built inside Elidir mountain, all with a capacity of about 300 MW, able to produce a full power output of 1800 MW. All this was placed inside a huge man-made cavern, which is big enough to hold St Paul's Cathedral, plus about 16 km of tunnel network. I went on a visit to the site a few weeks back whilst on holiday – it's pretty impressive down there! The electricity generated to meet the surges in demand is converted by huge transformers into 400,000 volts, and then fed into the National Grid via a system of underground cable networks to the nearby Substation at Pentir.
One thing Dinorwig is unable to do is produce enough electricity from the pumped-storage process to pump water back up the hill. It actually uses 33% more than it produces to do this, hence the reason why electricity is bought in cheap from elsewhere. So what if the Grid was to break down? Well, there are diesel generators and large batteries on-site which can be used to pump-water back in the event of a Grid shut-down. Once water is pumped back, Dinorwig's power generation facility can be used to help re-start the grid. (According to Wikipedia, some of the other conventional stations can do this as well). However, in the long term, generating power from a diesel generator for this purpose is inefficient.
This leads me to the question which may (or may not) have sprung to mind. If the Grid has permanently shut down after the collapse, how come Dinorwig is still working? Well, the way I present it is that despite the fact that there is no external supply of electricity, the staff at the station aim to still keep it going by whatever means possible. Yes, there has been a complete breakdown, and the Grid could not restart because of the complete depletion of fossil fuel availability. The Government didn't build its newly planned nuclear power stations in time (as James Lovelock suggests it should), and what was in existence (including Dinorwig) couldn't take up the slack. What fuel resources the staff at the station had may have been enough to keep the station on tick-over, but not to generate enough electricity to supply the whole of the UK (not even Wales, though theoretically Dinowig could supply the whole of the country at full capacity if required). So its worst case scenario again. However, the dedication of the staff and newcomers from elsewhere means that they find inventive and novel solutions to maintaining this valuable resource for future generations. The description of how they do this is one for the book itself. After all, I wouldn't want to ruin the story for you!
Of course, what the characters see is the station being run for the benefit of the local population, both from a domestic and industrial point of view. What's more, they've found a novel way of selling on their 'product' in this energy deficient, resource hungry world.
Check out the links below to find out some more about Dinorwig. Also, if you ever get chance, go and visit the place. It's well worth it and makes a nice alternative if the weather is inclement in North Wales and you don't fancy getting drenched on the mountains!
Until the next time…(I promise it won't be so long this time either!)