The key role for small hydropower26 May 2022
With energy prices rising and increasing efforts to reduce dependence on Russian fossil fuel since the war in Ukraine, the UK has been encouraged to turn to community-owned renewable schemes to help generate more electricity. Advocates for small hydropower believe it has a key role to play in the grassroot transformation of the energy landscape.
Kate Gilmartin is the Community Energy Investment Lead at the Local Energy North West Hub. A regional programme to promote investment in energy projects, it provides support to businesses, local authorities and communities across northwest England to meet the Net Zero agenda. Gilmartin aids the scoping, seeding and development of renewable energy projects across the region.
In our changing energy climate, and with a drive to reduce dependence on Russian fossil fuel, is there now a greater a role for the development of more community-owned renewable schemes, such as small hydro, in the UK?
“Yes, there absolutely is,” Gilmartin says emphatically. “The grid isn't able to connect large-scale new energy generation without reinforcements, which are costly and take a long time to come to fruition. Small-scale generation will be key in allowing the transition to a low carbon energy system.
“Hydro generates the most energy in the winter and can be 24/7 – this is when we need energy the most (ie supporting communities to move off fossil fuel heating to heat pumps). It is low visibility, low impact and low carbon and if well maintained can generate local energy for more than 60 years.
“The government suggests that the grid will be decarbonised through big nuclear and new offshore wind, however, this won't solve the problem of the increased demand (from electrification of heat and transport) on the grid,” Gilmartin continues. “With electricity demand more than doubling, the required reinforcements will be very costly and take a long time – therefore stalling progress to Net Zero. Local generation is a viable solution to this issue.”
So, does Gilmartin think more local generation is feasible?
“Communities are very motivated and gaining momentum. The ability to run webinars and hold meetings online has vastly improved the sharing of knowledge, ideas and the ability to support new community energy groups. Communities also have savings to invest in community schemes – they get a return on their investment of about 4%, but their money is supporting a community-based, not-for-profit community scheme. Any profits are returned to community benefit funds, and they are also supporting low carbon energy. We never really have an issue raising capital finance to build these schemes,” she says.
Motivation from communities is a real advantage in setting up these schemes and groups working together propel themselves forward.
“The ability to raise the capital means that they are more likely to progress a scheme than a landowner who may prioritise their capital for other things,” Gilmartin explains. “Communities who are on oil are really keen to come off it, but they are limited in what they can do – community hydro is a really great way for them to address the climate emergency and start the transition to Net Zero in their communities. Raising awareness is valuable too. Success breeds success. Most groups will continue with other projects once their scheme is developed.”
To encourage the development of these schemes Gilmartin says that seed funding such as the Rural Community Energy Fund grant has been invaluable. Groups need grants to get moving, pay for consultant hydrologists etc but they also need support. With a background in renewable energy consultancy Gilmartin says she can give a lot of advice and assist in streamlining how projects come forward.
Buttermere Hydro is a 45kW high head scheme on the Mill Beck at Buttermere in Cumbria. The Local Energy North West Hub has granted Melbreak Renewable Energy Community Interest Company a grant to undertake a feasibility study for the scheme. It will generate ~225,000kW/yr, is low impact with a small impoundment for the intake. It has a buried pipeline and a discreet turbine house, which will be situated behind the existing substation from where all the water will be returned to the beck.
A local hotel has agreed to be the main consumer of the electricity. To ensure the project is financially viable and to maximise hydro generation consumed by the hotel the hub suggests the installation of three EV charge points, as well as evaluating the costs for switching away from the hotel’s oil heating to a heat pump.
Commenting on the Environment Agency’s recently announced new charges for small hydro projects, Gilmartin says that a community scheme such as Buttermere will pay £1500 before the 1 April 2022 but will pay £11,383 for the application for abstraction after the 1 April. This is on top of all the other costs associated with the application, such as fisheries studies, geomorphology, hydrology and so on.
“The EAs 'cost recovery' is a massive blocker and counter to their narrative of being active on climate change mitigation,” Gilmartin says.” They're charging themselves out at £100/hour (equivalent to a chartered engineer), yet the officers assigned to the project may have little or no experience in hydro – hence the amount of time required to review an abstraction licence. A qualified hydro engineer would be able to review and comment on an application with one day of work. I have suggested the EA outsource to people who are qualified and can do this review within a day.”
Moving to Net Zero offers a significant challenge to the distribution network operators. Gilmartin says that case studies such as Buttermere Hydro highlight the issues of grid capacity that rural communities will face as they start to think about and move towards actioning their Net Zero ambitions. The solution is localised energy generation (often in the form of small hydro), flexibility, and local balancing.
Pros and cons of community owned schemes
What are the advantages of such community-owned power schemes?
- Low carbon energy
- A community-owned asset bringing in revenue to the community for 60+ years
- Ripple effect
And the disadvantages?
- They are complex projects that need support and a good, committed team
- There can be complexities around land ownership/common land etc – all need unpicking and a budget to do that (the Rural Community Energy Fund has really helped, but we are unlikely to receive more funding).
- The community has to run a hydro scheme and any technical issues that arise.
- Succession – who will run the scheme in 30+ years?