Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Snowdonia: assault on the wild places-then and now

Construction work taking place in Llanberis Pass on the hydro scheme.
Driving down Llanberis Pass last week, one couldn’t fail to take in the construction work taking place on the west side of the Pass where a pipeline course has been gouged down the mountainside to arrive at a turbine house just 100 metres or so from the road. Hydro schemes within the National Park are currently very much in vogue with even the National Trust getting in on the act on the south side of the Yr Wyddfa massif where they have constructed a hydro pipeline and turbine house above Nant Gwynant. However it is the £100m Glan Rhonwy scheme above Llanberis which has been granted planning permission by Gwynedd CC which is causing outdoor activists the most disquiet. Using a recently created business Snowdonia Pumped Hydro, the London based Quarry Battery Company under the watchful eye of its executive director, Peter Taylor who is listed as being based on the Isle of Man (Not a tax exile surely!) the company seeks to exploit abandoned quarries and convert them as storage facilities for its hydro power schemes.

It currently boasts twenty planning applications in the pipeline –no pun intended!.

Compared to the environmental impact of industrial scale wind farms and their negative impact on fragile ecosystems and their aesthetic blighting of our uplands, coasts and seascapes, hydro power schemes are by contrast pretty low key in their impact on their surroundings. Particularly the small scale schemes in the Pass and Nant Gwynant. Glan Rhonwy on the other hand will definitely have a detrimental impact. Ecologically in its utilisation of a site which harbours all manner of wildlife, aesthetically in its degrading of a site which is returning to nature and of course, the impact it will have on outdoor activists who use the site for recreation. At the end of the day, The company behind Glan Rhonwy, like their friends in the wind industry, are in it for easy profits and are certainly not driven by evangelistic ‘green’ motives.

However, when dealing with our low calibre, bovine local politicians, throwing the word ‘renewable’ around is like holding the magic key to the planning permission door. I’m convinced that a developer could submit plans to build a power plant burning old tyres and it would get planning permission if the developer added the word ‘renewable’ to his application and business name!

Interestingly, the threat to the ‘natural environment’ in Snowdonia (and I’m well aware that in an area of intensive farming, quarrying and tourism there is nothing particularly ‘natural’ about the land) has a history of activism undertaken by those engaged in outdoor activities. In the 70’s the BMC journal ‘Mountain Life’ ran a regular feature ‘Assault on the wild places’ alongside its general mountaineering and climbing news. Below are two examples of well known climbers- Barbara James and Gwen Moffat- taking up the environmental gauntlet and lambasting what was then the Central Electricity Generating Board on their insensitive developments in Ogwen Valley and Dinorwic.

Has time been kind to the Electric Mountain or the tarmac road up into the Carneddau from the A5? Personally I find the feeder lake up at Marchlyn Mawr a rather sterile and depressing place and despite regularly toiling up the CEGB road above Ogwen, I rather hate it! It’s dead straight, seems to go on forever and blights what should be a rocky, grassy pathway up the hillside. Mountain bikers appear to like pelting down it though!
CEGB invades the Carneddau

Mountaineers will know well the track which leads north from the A5 near Helm to Craig Ysfa and Carncdd Llywelyn, for it ascends, steeply in places, into the largest roadless area in Snowdonia. It crosses the famous leat which was built during the war by Italian prisoners of war. This leat collects water draining from lakes Lloer and Llugwy on the south side of the Carneddau and channels it into Llyn Cowlyd and thence to Dolgarrog Power Station in the Conway Valley. The trackway ends near the dark waters of Ffynnon Llugwy cradled beneath the west slopes of Pen yr Helgi Du, but a path continues to climb steeply to a col. At the top a strong wind hits you — but there is a dramatic view and the unfolding of the Eigiau valley below towards the distant Conway Estuary gives a superb excuse to pant and regain your breath.

Most people either turn left up the narrow ridge to Carnedd Llewellyn or descend to the foot of Amphitheatre Buttress and the other Craig yr Ysfa climbs. The walk up from the main road to the lake takes little more than half an hour but it leads to a haven of peace and solitude deep in the hills where the water drains as softly as a cat prowls with dinner on its mind. How many mountaineers associate the work being done on the Hydro-electric scheme in Llanberis with the chaotic state of the Ogwen Valley during the latter months of 1974? Early negotiations certainly gave no warnings of such disruption, which has been caused by the need to draw water from Ffynnon Lloer and Ffynnon Llugwy to supply the villages around Bethesda to the west with drinking water. Apparently the CEGB never realised that the water in Marchlyn- the round lake high on Elider Fawr that is being raped for the Hydro-scheme, would he too disturbed to be drunk by the inhabitants of the villages.

And so it seems maintenance vehicles have to have easy access to the dam at Ffynnon Llugwy. The result is the transformation of the grass trackway to large stone rubble, a scar cutting through the surrounding green hillsides. Complaints by the very active Council for the Preservation of Rural Wales (they have monitored plans throughout) were answered with assurances that the stones would be coverered. But they didn't say with what..... it was to be tarmacadam ! Work was started early in December, and the tarmac was laid first above the leet where it was out of sight from the road. By the end of 1974. the tarmac had oozed from the lake to within 20 yards of the A5.

It is done. What can we lesser mortals do against such faceless. All powerful giants as the CEGB? As I write. the CFRW await an answer from the head of the Generating Board project to their query about the trackway. It seems that reversal is impossible. Decisions now must be made by looking forward not backward. Who will use the road? Three alternatives seem possible. One, that it will be used infrequently by maintenance vehicles; Two, that it will become like the road to Stwlan Dam where mini-busloads of tourists are allowed but mountaineers can are prohibited. Three; that a limited size car park be made near the dam giving easy access to the hills for the first 50 cars to arrive.

Will mountain rescue vehicles and/or other vehicles he given special dispensation? Accepting the fact that the road, with some tidying up, is here to stay. which alternative is preferable? Are there any other alternatives? As I came down from Pen yr Helgi Du on New Year's Eve shafts of sunlight highlighted the unsightly debris that banked the new road and panicking clouds were gathering over Carnedd Llewelyn. Perhaps they too wished to hasten the end of the day and the year.
Barbara James Mountain Life-Feb 1974

The strangely sterile and soulless dammed lake of Marchllyn Mawr

A Third White Elephant 

It is possible that the Dinorwic pumped storage scheme proposed for Llanberis will prove itself as much a white elephant as Concorde and Maplin. The cost increased by one third before the project left the drawing board and it is now well over £100 millions. In view of revised demand forecast the CEGB's entire investment programme is under review so, with the Treasury doing a new set of sums with the taxpayer's money, Dinorwic isn't home and dry yet — but nor are we. Ancillary projects and services necessitated by primary schemes are far-reaching, and often more of a pollution than the principal scheme. Because Dinorwic is to use Marchlyn Mawr for its upper lake — draining and filling it  in combination with Llyn Peris twice daily — an alternative water supply has to be found.

Llyn Ogwen will supply this, its level augmented by Cowlyd. In order to incorporate the existing leat on the south side of the Carneddau in this scheme, an access road has been built from the A5 and it didn't need planning permission. Water will be taken down the Nant Francon in pipes. We are told that these will be placed underground. In their report for 1973, the Gwynedd River Authority examines in some detail the possibility of flooding the Nant Francon by means of a dam at Tyn y Maes. The plan envisages a dam 1,640 feet long, nearly 200 feet high, and an artificial lake extending back to the Ogwen Falls. Cwm Llafar (below the Black Ladders) is also mentioned; a 100-foot dam there would impound a lake with a storage capacity of 3,000 million litres and could be used as a direct supply or to regulate the flow of the Afon Ogwen.

Cwellyn, west of Snowdon, is already the focal point of a two year plan to make it a reservoir. There is a deficiency of water in Gwynedd already, and the River Authority cites new mines and smelters, new hydro-electric schemes and pulp mills, all to be in the area, as the industries which may in the future place an exorbitant demand on water supplies. Present industries, using pure water when they could very well do with the raw product, are the nuclear power station on Anglesey, the aluminium smelter at Holyhead. Wastage in Snowdonia is high. In an area where the rainfall exceeds 100 inches, the storage facilities rely on constant replenishing rather than on dam structure, the efficiency of pipes, and conservation. Wastage between source and consumer varies between 10% and 15%. On the consumer's premises it is 25% (dripping taps, faulty cisterns, washing hands without putting the plug in the basin etc). If you include industrial demand, each of us uses between 70 and 95 gallons daily. With more intelligent utilisation of all water we would need only a small proportion of proposed reservoirs, and these less large.

If we were less extravagant with electricity we would need fewer and smaller power stations. And if the Government decide that we must have more electricity even if we have to spend over £100 millions on one scheme — albeit the biggest in Europe — and that only to augment the supply at peak periods, then why not generate electricity by gas turbines. They don't leak precious power from the transmission lines on the way to the conurbations which the power is designed to serve. You can site gas turbines anywhere: in existing stations, above ground, below ground, near the load centres (not in national parks). They're cheap — and they'll burn almost anything.

Gwen Moffatt.Mountain Life June 1974

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Nuclear Option: Wind Power verses Nuclear energy

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A nuclear power station tucked away amongst the folded hills or every hill and mountain in the photograph covered with wind turbines which will still be producing less electricity than the power station? : Photo The decommissioned Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power sation in North Wales.

Supporters of the desecration of our uplands and seascapes with wind power plants often say ‘Well...it’s better than having a nuclear power station isn’t it and besides; I find them rather beautiful!’ As if having thousands of identical 3/400' steel towers rooted in swimming pool size plinths of concrete and linked by tracks gouged out of the fragile earth, substations and powerlines are ‘beautiful’.Well...it certainly doesn't chime with my Ruskin-esque idea of beauty!

Yesterday I was at back of Moelwyn Bach, the rarely visited south face which falls outside of the popular paths which link the Moelwyn peaks, and I found myself looking across the undulating empty landscapes which sweep across to the south and which held in its green maw,the decommissioned Trawsfyndd Nuclear Power Station. As someone who proudly sported a smiley face ‘Ynni Niwclear- Dim Diolch!- ( Nuclear Power-No Thanks!) in my VW Camper, I remember how elated I was when Trawsfynnd closed down. In those days I was a big supporter of wind power although back then, I never appreciated the environmental impact they would have when the new generation of super-turbines would be erected across many of our wildest and most beautiful areas.

What struck me yesterday was that here was a nuclear power station tucked away in the landscape and yet you would have to cover every hill and mountain within that photograph with wind power plants and even then they would still only be producing a fraction of the electricity output of the nuclear power station. Certainly from an aesthetic and energy output point of view, the nuclear option wins every time. However, Nuclear’s Achilles heel is its perception as a dangerous time bomb which has the potential to unleash hell upon an unsuspecting public.

Ironically, it took the Fukushima nuclear disaster to convince leading environmentalist George Monbiot that nuclear power was the only feasible option for a low carbon energy future. His argument being that if the very worst nuclear accident scenario-an earthquake and tsunami-could be controlled and dealt with with relatively limited impact, loss of life and ecological degradation, then it was a risk worth taking if we want to reduce our Co2 emissions and prevent out of control global warming.
My own perspective is somewhere between the two extremes. I’m not a huge fan of nuclear power but as someone who does not want to see our quiet spaces trashed any further than they already have been by the insensitive location of wind farms, then aesthetically,as stated above, a single nuclear power station over thousands of wind turbines has to be a better option. Of course, if western societies could get to grips with the 40% of electricity produced which is wasted through corporate, municipal and domestic mismanagement then the choice between nuclear and so called renewables becomes less an issue. Quite simply, wasted energy dwarfs the output of both energy sources and stands-like food waste-as a criminal misuse of resources.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Digital Lomography

 Taken at the weekend on a 5mp 2003 Olympus c-50 Zoom.

‘Digital Lomography’ is actually oxymoronic. Like using mono quadrophonics to describe a hi-fi music system it suggests two totally contradictory photographic processes; one based on a analogue film processing, the other rooted in the dominant digital image capturing system used by 98% of still photographers these days. However, the term is useful when describing what we could call a lo-fi approach to taking digital photographs. An approach where first and second generation digital cameras are utilised to take photographs which are elementally different to those images captured on the latest state of the art DSLR cameras. If you know nothing about Lomography then read here

Aforementioned early classic.The 2003 Olympus Camedia C-50 zoom

My first digital camera was a 2mp Sony Cybershot which cost me a hefty £250 in the 1990’s. This was a time when digital photography was very much in the ascendency and camera manufacturers were falling over themselves to dump film and get a foothold in the new digital market. My recollection of image quality taken on these early digital cameras is that while they fell well short of what is accepted today in terms of sharpness, noise and definition; the odd saturation and colour temperature was reminiscent of lomo film photography in its unpredictability.
I recently bought a job lot of old digital cameras which included a 3.2mp version of my old Sony Cybershot and several early classics. The brick like Samsung Digimax, Nikon coolpix, Canon Powershot, Olympus Camedias and early Polaroid digi cameras amongst other manufacturers who never lasted the course.Testing these cameras confirmed my recollections of their quirky image capturing quality, yet something else soon became clear. By the time we had reached the early part of this century, with compact digital cameras becoming ever more sophisticated and now sporting shooting modes (auto, man, pic, landscape, macro etc) and with the mp size increasing almost by the month, a lot of these early compact cameras from the leading players in the industry- like Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Olympus- were actually extending out of the digital-lomo field and into what I suppose you would have to call ‘proper photography’.

 Early 4mp Nikon Coolpix image

Ten years ago, the digital compacts were already almost as good as anything you can buy today. My little 2003 5mp Pentax Optio has taken photographs used in Climbing Guidebooks and its tiny size and quality made it an ideal climbing or mountain biking camera.(Until I stood on it taking a selfie!) Recently I added a 5mp Olympus Camedia Zoom to the three earlier Camedias I already own and like the Pentax Optio, it’s a contemporary design classic. With a brushed metal case, mode dial and retractable zoom lens triggered by the sliding lens cover, the camera takes a pretty decent shot and looks and feels pretty good too. Despite it dating back to 2002, this is a little compact that you could whip out in a smart London eatery or on The Marin Trail without it looking out of place. And bought for less than fiver complete with charger, spare XD cards and usb lead.

Of course the compact camera industry has been battered and bruised by the rise and rise of the smart phone with more people apparently taking images on iPhones than certainly compacts. There’s no doubt that iPhones etc take decent images but despite using an iPhone myself I don’t actually like the tactile experience of taking a photograph with an iPhone. I’d rather slip a little compact in my pocket for everyday use although I still lug my Nikon DSLR out if the occasion demands it.

Recent shot taken on an early Canon Powershot 5mp

So...’Digital Lomography’; where do you draw the line? 2mp’s..3mp’s...5mp’s??? To recreate the quirky unpredictability of early digital photography then perhaps the lower the mp’s the better although personally, I think 5mp’s sits about right. That would accommodate both the weird and the wonderful. With older digital compacts costing peanuts these days-I bought an immaculate 3mp Olympus Camedia for £1 recently!- then there is a huge potential for a  photographic movement which like film lomography, rewards imagination, vision and artistic interpretation through the creativity of the photographer. Digital Lomography, the antithesis of hi tech photographic geekery!
 Another Olympus C-50 image.