Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Moving mountains: a new piste to Bourg?

If you have driven up to Les Arcs from Bourg St Maurice this season you probably couldn't help noticing a large gathering of earth-moving machines and building site paraphernalia at the edge of the second hairpin on the route des Arcs.  I suspected, being on the edge of the foret communale and only a couple of hundred meters from the vast twin pipes running down to the Malgovert hydroelectric power station, it must have something to do with electricity and the EDF.

The mountains have moved, it seems. In the last 60 years, since the Tignes-Malgovert hydroelectric scheme was completed, slight movement of the terrain below the steeply-inclined pipes (the final 950m stage of a 17km network fed by the Lac de Chevril at Tignes) has damaged the joints and made them potentially dangerous. These pipes can carry up to 50 cubic metres of water a second, certainly enough to give Super-U a good soaking if they  burst!

Forgive all the statistics, but the Tignes-Malgovert scheme is one of the 'wonders of the world' in the field of sustainable energy production - it took 20,000 people 20 years to build, involved the destruction and submersion of the thriving old village (and burgeoning ski resort) of Tignes and at the time (1953) was the largest hydroelectric network in the world. The Malgovert power station produces enough energy for 400,000 homes (392 mW) with zero carbon output, and contributes substantially to making Savoie a net exporter of electricity (despite all those power-greedy ski resorts!). In fact, it's my belief that without the advent of hydroelectric power and the subsequent industrialisation of the valleys there would be no ski resorts, but that's going to have to wait for another blog....)

So, the EDF is undertaking its largest current project to rebuild the lower sections of pipes, having re-stabilised the mountain underneath. It's going to take 5 years, and the earth-movers parked by the route des Arcs are engaged in carving 7 km of new forest roads to allow access for men, machines (especially 40 tonne cranes) and material. They have already constructed a zone de vie ( living quarter) for 200 people, as work is expected to go on 24 hours a day. Echoes of the enormity of the original construction project!

After the work is completed, in 2015 the new pistes forestieres will be handed to the commune. If you've ever skied down the Bois de Saule piste from Arc 1600 to Les Granges you'll know how easy it is to miss the point where it departs from the old forest road, and to end up skiing all the way  down to the main road, to exactly the point where this building site begins. In a few years time, you'll be able to carry on (and there's normally enough snow to ski to Bourg during January and February) on these new pistes all the way to down to the edge of the town. So maybe a further, unintentional legacy of the hydro industry may be a new ski piste, to replace the one that existed until the 1980s when the bridges over the road were removed for 'maintenance' reasons.

There's a wonderful aerial photograph on the wall of the ski school in Arc 1600 of a huge torch-lit descent all the way from the resort to Bourg, taken in late 1980s. Perhaps we can soon look forward to recreating it to celebrate the re-invigorated pipes and the sustainable energy they produce.

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