At the British Hydropower Association’s (BHA’s) recent conference, the UK small hydro industry was put under the spotlight. This, the first formal meeting of BHA, had been arranged to kick-start the industry into the next century.

‘Small hydro has received much bad press recently,’ Eric Wilson, retiring chairman of BHA, said at the opening session. Referring to the UK energy minister’s initial uncertainty about the inclusion of small hydro power in the fifth round of the Non Fossil Fuel Obligation (NFFO, see IWP&DC October 1998, p2), Wilson believed that there was an urgent need to ‘increase the awareness of the importance of the small hydro industry in the UK’.

Discussion at BHA’s meeting, which was supported by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Energy Technology Support Unit (ETSU), focussed on potential export markets and environmental regulations. James Craig from ETSU, which has been in consultation with DTI and the industry since May 1998, explained ETSU’s involvement. ‘Improved communications within the industry itself and with environmental regulators is the key to improving small hydro,’ he said.

Since 1987, when it launched its small hydro power programme, DTI has taken an interest in the UK’s small hydro resources. Instigated to determine the size of the industry and identify barriers to its development, the programme produced a useful database which, with the introduction of NFFO in 1990, was successful in stimulating investment in schemes of less than 5MW.

In 1995 DTI completed a major review of small-scale hydro. ‘We needed to appraise the programme,’ Craig said. ‘It was not focusing on anything and everyone was doing their own thing.’ DTI’s main conclusion was that although the UK’s small hydro market was diminishing in size there was much to be gained from the export market, which is expected to grow. Consequently, the small hydro programme was re-orientated towards increasing the UK share of the overseas market.

At the beginning of 1998 DTI commissioned independent hydro consultant Tom Jardine to identify practical information on financing small hydro projects overseas. ‘The business of small hydro power generation is bedevilled by the uniqueness of each project,’ Jardine commented. ‘We must realise that there is not a quick fix to financing small hydro overseas.’ Eric Wilson commented that the industry must use its skills to its own advantage. ‘The UK has a long history of small hydro and we have a lot of expertise here. We must put this to use abroad,’ he said. Mark Allington from ETSU agreed. ‘We need a collaborative approach to export marketing of UK hydro,’ he said. ‘DTI can only respond if the industry makes a collective effort with regards to the export market.’ Having tackled the potential export market head on, conference delegates and speakers turned their attention to environmental issues and the increasing complexity of regulations. David Dunkley from the Scottish Office put the problems into perspective. ‘Just because hydro power schemes are on a small scale does not mean that they are necessarily good from an environmental point of view,’ he explained. ‘A badly designed small scheme can do a lot of harm. Fisheries and hydro power developers have to talk to one another from the word go. We should be trying to work together.’ Ian Barker from the Environment Agency spoke of the present time as being ‘interesting and challenging for all of us’. The Labour Government instigated a review of abstraction licences in England and Wales in 1997. Much to the small hydro industry’s disdain, abstraction licences are required by hydro power developers, although the industry argues that, unlike other water users, it returns unpolluted water to the river in an aerated form beneficial to aquatic life. The consultation phase of the abstraction review has finished and the Department of Environment’s decision is awaited.

The Environment Agency is responsible for analysing applications for abstraction licences, and Barker urged the small hydro industry to do its homework before submitting proposals. In recent years only 50% of applications have been viable for development in North Wales. ‘You need to consider the river’s needs,’ he said. ‘Applying for an abstraction licence is an expensive business and you need to consult with the appropriate bodies early on to ensure your proposal is 100% viable. You must understand that we have a tightrope to walk when balancing the needs of abstractors against the needs of the environment,’ Barker added.

Representatives from other environ-mental agencies offered valuable advice. John Rennilson from the Highland Council, a department which regularly reviews applications for hydro developments in the Highlands of Scotland, said that small hydro projects must be environmentally acceptable. ‘The regulations are here to stay and you’ve just got to work with the system,’ he told delegates. The message to the small hydro industry was to consult with environmental agencies, planning departments and national parks early on to allow for improved dialogue and more openness in the application process.

As delegates left the conference there was support for future meetings to tackle environmental and export issues in greater detail.

As ETSU’s James Craig said: ‘We cannot be successful unless we improve the systems by which we can develop our industry.’