Software set to revolutionise hydro sites

15 September 2015

Collaborative research has successfully combined academic skills with ideas from industry and innovation funding from the UK government. Developers of new sourcing software say that it can ease the process of locating potential micro hydro sites.

New technology being developed in the UK has the potential to revolutionise the sourcing of renewable energy from rivers. A software app, developed collaboratively by the University of Leicester and High Efficiency Heating UK, automatically selects appropriate river locations to site a large range of micro hydropower turbines and determines their environmental sensitivity.

Its developers claim that the innovative prototype software has the power to shake up the micro hydropower industry, and could save thousands of pounds in initial survey costs. By making use of free publicly available data sourced from satellites, it can save time and paper work when pinpointing the best locations in UK rivers for sourcing energy.

The idea was the brainchild of High Efficiency Heating UK - a small renewable energy company based in Greater Manchester. Managing Director Andy Baxter turned to the team at the University of Leicester to utilise their expertise in big data processing when using data obtained from satellite and aircraft-based earth observation.

"We had the idea of creating a tool that would radically change the way that hydropower opportunities are identified and then qualified as viable," Baxter said. "If we could do this, it would be a truly market-disruptive development."

The project was funded by a £120,400 grant from Innovate UK for an initial ten-month feasibility project called ISMORTASED (Identification of Sites for Micro-hydropower On Rivers Through Applied Satellite and Environmental Data). Work focused on the River Tame to the East of Manchester and yielded multiple solutions for selected turbine specifications along much of the river. The tool makes use of a proliferation of free national-scale data sets collected by various governmental organisations.

Dr Kevin Tansey, Reader in Remote Sensing and Principal Investigator at the University of Leicester said: "This tool pulls in collections of almost 30 national scale data sets that are available at no cost. We use Geographical Information Systems tools to overlay these different information layers, including a high resolution digital elevation model from the Environment Agency to estimate slope downstream.

"We are delighted with the results. We carried out field tests on the River Tame in October 2014 and can honestly say that this tool does exactly what it says on the tin. We have built a very visual and interactive user interface in Google Earth to show the multiple solutions on offer at various locations and their cost. We can process the data in the office, or standing on the doorstep of a land owner or turbine manufacturer. Basically we can run the tool to show potential locations nationally on any stretch of river."

Martyn Cowsill, project consultant at Fluvial Bounty CIC, said: "During our work, we uncovered several significant market opportunities and, more to our surprise, some innovative ways of exploiting the energy potential even in small rivers, especially those which run through urban areas.

"Hydropower is a cut-above solar and wind, in that the river runs 24/7, 365 days a year and is a proven way of generating energy from rivers. The National Grid and Distribution Network Operators like Western Power Distribution in the UK, are very interested in hydropower's ability to help balance the grid.

"We could be talking about thousands of inexpensive 10-20kW turbines," he added, "installed on urban rivers, close to the point of use, close to points of trouble-free connectivity to the grid, producing electricity during times of peak demand, and possibly also hydrogen for hydrogen vehicles at times of low demand."

Discussions are already underway with organisations overseas to see how the tool can be made for international markets, especially in developing countries. The team is also currently seeking further funding from a range of potential investors to undertake a more robust national-scale validation campaign and develop a number of case studies.

Dr Kevin Tansey from the University of Leicester sees the completion of this stage of ISMORTASED as an excellent example of the university's expertise in delivering novel commercial ideas through a successful collaboration: "This was an exciting project to be working on to address the current and growing concerns around climate and energy," he said. "ISMORTASED offers an excellent example of University of Leicester's involvement with commercial and public sector organisations to develop tools that are applicable at the local scale globally."

Results Results of ISMORTASED displayed in Google Earth for a short stretch of the River Tame in Manchester. Clicking on the river shows the user information about the environmental considerations of this point on the river and estimated costs of installing and managing a hydropower system

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