OPINION: swimming against government policy is not easy for hydropower

Hydropower can benefit the environment and gives communities a positive view of renewables, argues Barn Power’s Mark Simon – it is worth continued investment

There are 29,000 industrial weirs in England, of which about 1,000 are suitable for small-scale hydropower, which could generate 1% of the country’s baseload power. Many of these are on weirs owned by The Canal & River Trust, which would receive revenue from a hydropower plant for the next 100 years. But future projects are unlikely to get built.

Over the past decade, there cannot be many power generation projects in this country that have received plaudits across a spectrum of people, from those who care how their electricity is generated to those who scarcely give it a thought.

In Yorkshire hydro supports the regeneration of once-heavily polluted industrial rivers

But people like hydropower. It generates renewable electricity through the steady year-round flow of a river. In Yorkshire it supports the regeneration of once heavily polluted industrial rivers.

That is what Barn Energy has been doing, with the three low-head river hydro projects built in Yorkshire over the past three years. The latest 500kW scheme, on the river Aire at Knottingley’s Brotherton Weir, a half-mile from the Ferrybridge coal-fired power station, officially opened in November last year. Knottingley, along with its sister schemes on the rivers Calder and Don, have been universally welcomed by local councillors and MPs, environmental groups, the media, the general public – and even by angling groups.

Barn Energy has built custom-designed fish and eel passages into each of its schemes (a national obligation for the Environment Agency under the EU Water Framework) that are helping salmon, absent since the 19th century, to navigate upriver to Leeds and Sheffield.

Each of the schemes is a significant and long-term infrastructure investment. Each will be quietly and safely operating well into the next century. And each are civil engineering gems, with at least 80% of the contracts to build them placed with British companies, and in our case almost all in Yorkshire and the North. They embody the Northern Powerhouse and Barn Energy has ambitions to build more.

However, the government’s decision in 2015 to reduce the feed-in-tariff for hydropower puts our next scheme on the river Trent – at Cromwell in Nottinghamshire – at risk, along with nearly all other schemes in England and Wales.

The cut in the FIT was aimed at slowing spending on new technologies such as solar PV, but has also hit mature, high-yield, long-term renewable low-head hydropower projects.

Hydropower has a higher yield and much longer life than all other renewables, and compared with most other forms of generation, is both unobtrusive and popular. Despite cross-party support for hydropower, the government has refused to re-consider. Being a relatively small part of the energy mix, hydropower is unable to swim against the flow of government policy, and new schemes will not be built. Another unintended consequence of government energy policy?

Given the cost of a fish passage (an estimated £2 million at Knottingley from an overall £7.5 million budget), the return on investment for projects without a higher FIT is too low. Most won’t get privately financed.

Low-head hydro has clear environmental and economic benefits, but if future schemes are to be built, the UK needs the involvement of the public sector – either as co-investors or by helping ambitious developers like Barn Energy with low-cost, long-term finance.

First published in the January 2018 issue of New Power Report

Further reading

New hydropower scheme commissioned in Scotland

Renewable energy offers a Brexit lifeline to farmers

Government decisions putting future hydro investment at risk, says Scottish energy minister

The hydropower industry has been hit by a double whammy from Westminster and Holyrood