Dispatch Four

Llanberis, Wales, UK—Three quarters of a mile inside "Electric Mountain" in Snowdon National Park, out of the rain but still damp, we watch six massive black turbines—each the combined weight of the seven largest dinosaurs ever found—rotate a dizzying 500 times a minute. Their vibration rumbles deep in my chest and throat, and as I step on the metal platform around one of the turbines, a slightly painful buzz travels from my toes to my stomach. Nearby, bright yellow valves the size of VW Beetles control the flow of water from a glacial lake 600 meters above.

In the 1970s, the British government transformed this mountain from slate quarry to hydroelectric powerhouse, commissioning the largest civil engineering project the country had ever seen: the construction of the Dinowig Power Plant. Local crews blasted open chambers inside already pillaged rock to create space for a pumped storage station, a method of power production that takes advantage of the most obvious of natural phenomena-water flowing downhill. In this case, 15,000 gallons of water are released every second from a high glacial lake to a lower reservoir. The water turns the massive turbines and can generate enough energy (1300 megawatts) to power all of Wales for five hours. However, energy from the plant is only recruited during periods of peak energy demand—in the morning, for example, when all of England is making tea, or in the evening during the hottest half hour of British humor. At night, when the demand for energy is low and electricity shares on the national energy market are cheap, the water is pumped back up to the lake.

Stalactites hang like thin crystalline tubes from the ceiling and Pipistral and Horseshoe bats tuck into dark corners of the corridors that link the massive chambers (the main cavern could house a 16-story building with room to spare). Our tour guide David Mitchell, a thin, bespectacled guy with wispy blond hair, whisks us into a tiny underground auditorium—just out of earshot of the turbines—to view a low-budget documentary that begins like a bad B horror movie. "Weather is not the only force that shapes the mountain," growls a distinctly Scottish narrator. On the screen, a bolt of lightening rips open the sky over a silhouette of hulking rock. "The mountain has been cracked and decimated by man for hundreds of years," booms the Scot. The frame shifts to black and white photos of lean and dusty men and boys roped into the steep mountainsides, swinging pick axes to carve off the most useable sheets of slate. The quarry was once the second largest of its kind in the world, employing over 3,000 locals and supplying the world with premium slate for roof, house, and floor tiles. But by 1969, after nearly 160 years in operation, business dwindled to the point of industry collapse, leaving a wrecked mountainside and piles and piles of slate chips too imperfect for market.

stone house with red 1/2 door

The youth hostel in Cynwyd: charming, despite its "damp problem"

Today, the Dinowig Power Plant employs 130 people; thirty of them work inside the mountain. Only six are needed to run the facility on weekends and holidays.

Morgan Windram, a geography student, is studying how local economies are affected by different methods of energy production. "I want to know what an energy plant like this one can do for any area in terms of monetary contributions and employing local people," she tells me as we sit in the Electric Mountain snack shop, 200 meters above the vast chambers of the power station. Windram furrows her brow. "A lot of the plants we've seen in the UK have only a few employees, some just have four or five."

Later in the day we travel through the rain to our youth hostel, an old stone mill on the edge of the village Cynwyd. A cozy coal fire waits for us inside, temporarily burning away the chill. A sign on the kitchen wall solicits money from guests to help solve a "damp problem" in the house. A pungent odor—something organic, mold?—hangs like unwanted perfume in the air of the upstairs bedroom the women are sharing. In the morning, the allergy sufferers are looking a bit puffier than usual, the rain continues to fall in fits and starts, and a peculiar smell takes hold of the vans.

Last Updated May 01, 2003