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2006-02-14 Still in awe of electricity's power

Sitting at the kitchen table in Cartron, as I carefully completed my Geography homework, Mum stood by the cooker stirring a large saucepan of marmelade.

 

She carried the heavy pot to the sink, to divide it into pre-prepared jam-jars. Always eager to help, I ran to the cooker to turn off the plate, immediately checking I had done the job by placing mypalm directly on the hot plate.

The fact that it was just changing from bright red to black ought to have been an obvious clue. As I screamed, and dramatically fainted into the fireside armchair, it was evident that at the age of seven I was beginning to master the art of basic stagecraft, but had as yet not fully mastered the concept of electricity.

 

A quarter of a century later, in a stateroom aboard the QE2, I lay on my bed reading. As I unplugged my recharged mobile, I noticed that one prong of the adaptor had remained in the socket. So, brainless technophobic tenor decided to pull the metal prong out of the live socket with his naked thumb and index finger. Thrown back onto the bed violently, shocked on an assortment of levels, it was clear that, in my thirties, though the stage had now become my life, I still did not understand electricity. I can never comprehend why, by now, there is not just one plug which works worldwide - why can't they rewire the world for my convenience?

 

As we all know from lightning, and that blue-white flash emitting from faulty appliances, electricity is visible. Yet, unlike other forms of energy such as gas and oil, it is strangely invisible. Electric energy can be stored, as in batteries, but electric power is not stored. So the ESB are not selling electricity as such, but acting more like a pumping service? Switches are pressed in homes and businesses at all hours, and the ESB meets these varying demands by working on a supply and demand basis.

 

I have always had a fascination with hydroelectricity - generated by harnessing the power of moving water. Having been awestruck by the power of Niagara Falls, I decided to pay a visit to Ireland's only pumped-storage scheme, at Turlough Hill. There are no longer organised tours, but my neighbour - Eamonn O'Connell - has worked there for over thirty years, been Shift Manager for eight, and was my obvious guide.

 

As with all hydro-electric schemes the force of water moving from a higher to a lower elevation spins colossal turbines, in turn powering generators, whose magnets and copper wires induce electrical current which travels to transformers, on to switching stations, and finally to the consumer who pays for it in units. Turlough Hill controls all of the Irish hydrostations, on the Liffey, Lee, Shannon and Erne. All Irish power stations (hydro, oil, coal and peat) feed their supply into a national grid, and so, our electricity we receive in Sligo could have travelled from anywhere, viaSligo's switching station. Suddenly the `Wiremen' and their Rural Electrification scheme appeared doubly impressive.

 

Turlough Hill lies in an area of great natural beauty and history. It is part of theWicklow Way, and acted as a "Braveheart" filming location. Fortunately, the complex construction since the late 1960s has been environmentally friendly, preserving the natural appearance of the surroundings.

 

The upper, man-made, asphalt-lined reservoir is 692 metres above sea level. Lough Nahanagan, a glacial `corrie', is the natural lower reservoir, lying 330 metres below theUpperLake. Driving down the 650-metre-long tunnel into the underground powerhouse (below lake-level) is like entering a `James Bond' set. The complex, top-of-the-range hydraulic system, with four reversible pump-turbine generators and six single-phase transformers was way beyond the brain capacity of someone who plays with live sockets and cookers. Eamonn emphasised how the high-peak electricity period is obviously daytime : nightime in Turlough Hill is used to pump water back up to the Upper Reservoir. Turlough Hill resembles a huge battery smoothing out the peaky nature of electricity demand. As I stood at the helm of the country's Hydro Control Centre, I became strangely drawn, in a `Father Dougal'-manner, towards innumerable buttons and knobs. With one click of a computer mouse, had I the power to perhaps flood the Shannon? It was all too shocking. I felt uncomfortable surrounded by so much negativity. It was time to go.