Which is the best, most eco-friendly form of renewable energy? Most of us would probably guess hydroelectric. Unlike wind it doesn’t blight views, chop up birds or drive neighbours mad with humming; unlike solar, hydro installations do not appear so dependent on massive public subsidy. Plus, of course, we live in a land of rivers and rain so it makes sense to harness all that free, carbon-neutral energy.
The Environment Agency certainly thinks so. Out of 26,000 possible in–river sites around the country, it has listed 4,000 as ideally suited to hydro power development, and is licensing up to three a week. Already, around 17 per cent of the world’s electricity and 90 per cent of renewable power comes from hydro. What reasons could there be not to join this green energy revolution?
Quite a few, actually. Besides being at least as unpredictable and costly as solar, within our small island hydro power turns out to be every bit as environmentally damaging as wind. It kills and mutilates fish, trashes historic spawning grounds and wipes out dependent ecosystems. As with wind power, property rights are ignored. And all this at the taxpayer’s expense.
It all started with such good intentions. In 1890 a group of Benedictine monks built a hydro turbine in Fort Augustus abbey in the Scottish Highlands, powering the local village. Similar projects expanded on a bigger scale, and when electricity was nationalised dozens of massive plants were built. In the 1960s children were told that, one day, electricity would be free thanks to the new turbines whirring away under new dams and lochs. This may have seemed plausible in the Highlands, but extending this policy to flatter, dryer parts of England is causing mayhem.
Consider the case of Nottingham Angling Club, which in 1982 paid £150,000 for one and a half miles of fishing rights immediately below Gunthorpe weir on the River Trent. For a working men’s organisation this was a considerable outlay, but funds had accrued from its large membership and popular fishing competitions.
All this is under threat. The weir above the club’s fishing beat has been earmarked for a hydro turbine. The evidence from continental Europe — where some similar schemes in place for over a decade are now being ripped out — suggests that hydro power can damage the ecology of rivers and cause fish stocks to plummet.
This is not, of course, something you’ll read in the promotional literature of the hydro power industry. ‘Good for energy production… Good for climate change… Good for biodiversity,’ boasts the website of the Small Hydro Company, which is developing Gunthorpe Weir.
It claims: ‘Far from harming biodiversity, our hydroelectric installations will actually be good for the biodiversity of navigable rivers. While screens deflect fish away from the electricity-producing turbines to ensure that migrating fish are not entrapped, entrained or impinged, the installation of fish passes at weirs will remove a barrier that has impeded migrating fish and eels since the rivers were made navigable in the 18th and 19th centuries. There should be an increase in both the number of species and the total number of fish due to these new fish passes.’
So much for the theory. In practice, research by Mark Lloyd of the Angling Trust suggests that the ‘passes’ and ‘screens’ (the escape routes for fish) are not efficient. Salmon, sea trout, eels, barbel, carp, chub, dace, roach, perch, bream and pike all move up and down rivers to feed and breed. Turbines disrupt this process, first by slicing and dicing those fish unfortunate enough to swim into their blades; second by blocking migratory pathways; and third — because water flow slows in the turbine — by causing weirs to silt up and become under-oxygenated, which harms small species and invertebrates.
At Gunthorpe, most of the river’s flow will be directed through the turbines, slowing it from 45 cubic metres per second to under 12 at the exit. This is slower than the worst flow recorded here in the famously dry summer of 1976. A Nottingham Angling Club committee member, Dave Turner, bitterly observes that in the name of green energy the Environment Agency has successfully ensured that this stretch will face ‘drought conditions all year round’.
One of the more bizarre details of Gunthorpe’s operating licence is that it is permitted to kill 100 fish and eels in 24 hours before the turbine is obliged to shut down. This, the company told me, is in addition to other protections for fish and eels. But besides calling into question the Small Hydro Company’s claims to eco-friendliness — if passes are effective, surely they shouldn’t kill fish at all? — the kill quota will be so hard to monitor as to be meaningless.
Dave Turner believes monitoring is unworkable, because someone would have to catch the mangled fish as the turbine spat them out and then reassemble the body parts. ‘The quickest anyone from the Environment Agency usually arrives for any pollution incident is an hour, and within that time, a minced fish could be miles downstream,’ he says.
But there’s an even murkier aspect to the Gunthorpe project, and that’s the involvement of the government quango formerly known as British Waterways. This body should have ensured that when the Small Hydro Company made its planning application last year the club — as a direct neighbour — was made aware. ‘But we only found out when the man from Environment Agency fisheries phoned out of the blue, wondering why we hadn’t responded with only a week to go,’ says Turner. ‘British Waterways since apologised for their poor communications, but it’s too late to stop it now.’
British Waterways emerged as one of 190 quangos the coalition government wanted to axe, so it morphed into the Canal and River Trust in July, having earlier prepared for its self-funding future by buying a 10 per cent stake in the Small Hydro Company Ltd, among other commercial initiatives. The purchase price was exempted from disclosure in a Freedom of Information request, but British Waterways has revealed that it hopes to make £370,000 a year from hydro power.
The Small Hydro Company now has five turbine proposals with planning permission and licensing on the Trent, Don and Ouse. Richard Mercer, utilities manager of British Waterways/Canal Trust, said this commercial arrangement was considered an opportunity rather than a conflict of interest, and that it was ‘entered into four or five years ago in the early days of hydro when we didn’t quite know what it would generate’. He added: ‘British Waterways wouldn’t have gone into this with a view to killing fish — we stock fisheries, we don’t kill fish.’
To anyone who has followed the green energy racket in Britain, this is a familiar story. As with the wind and solar industries, a handful of vested interests are working in league with government agencies to exploit fashionable ecological concerns and push through money-making hydro schemes of no obvious benefit.
And so far they’re getting away with it, partly because of the industry’s propagandising and partly because of the public’s rose-tinted predisposition towards what, on the surface, sounds like the kind of lovely, clean, natural energy Britain enjoyed in that golden era when Constable painted Flatford Mill.
The hydro industry exploits this nostalgia shamelessly. Many turbine proposals are community-based, in towns of the industrial revolution whose prosperity was built on a watermill now lovingly maintained as a museum piece by weekend volunteers. There is a romance in turning back the clock, and the bonding potential of doing something collectively for the carbon footprint.
But the real-life sequence of events often starts with a five- or six-figure consultancy bill — internet research only gets you so far, as no turbine supplier finds it useful to publicise performance data — and often a weary decision to give up. Communities that persist with the plan inevitably discover that their turbine will never pay back the cost of installation, let alone pay for decades of upkeep.
How much power do these turbines really generate? The only in-river scheme candid enough to publicise output is Torrs Mill on the river Goyt in Derbyshire. Garlanded with awards, this was the UK’s first community-owned turbine and, at £330,000, one of the least expensive. Torrs Mill was cautiously estimated to generate 240,000 kwh a year but has averaged only 150,000 kWh since opening five years ago. The only beneficiary is the next-door Co-op supermarket, an investor, which receives about two thirds of its electricity needs. The start-up loan has 15 years to run but Torrs Mill wants to modify the turbine and needs to borrow more. This supposedly flagship hydro scheme is now not operating despite the wet summer.
And yet hydro power continues with an economic model that few can make work and, indeed, which poses an environmental menace that few can understand. Alan Butterworth, a former environment Agency officer on fish issues and hydro power, retired when he became disenchanted with the schemes. He is now an adviser to the Angling Trust. ‘It has been very easy to sell the idea of hydro power to communities,’ he says. ‘But the big problem is that while most people can understand biodiversity above ground, the average person doesn’t have a clue about what goes on under water.’
Even if every one of the Environment Agency’s 26,000 sites became operational, they would produce less than 1 per cent of Britain’s energy needs — a figure which even the Department of Energy and Climate Change admits is ‘modest’. No in-river turbine could compete in the open market. The only reason any new hydro project is built is because of the taxpayer subsidies available to producers of ‘renewable energy’. These are so generous that even the Queen’s business advisers have been unable to resist: the Crown Estate is spending £1.8 million on an Archimedes Screw turbine on the Thames near Windsor Castle.
The Queen’s turbine will generate an estimated 1.7 million kWh of electricity a year — which sounds impressive till you realise that this means enough to power just 2,000 hundred-watt lightbulbs. The £1.8 million outlay would make no economic sense were it not for the subsidy, which according to calculations by Christopher Booker means the Crown Estate stands to make £333,200 a year, however little electricity it feeds into the grid.
The Queen’s hydroelectric plant at Balmoral generates five times as much electricity — enough for the royal estate and a few hundred homes. But those turbines are powered by water gushing down from Lochnagar, a 3,800ft-high mountain. Windsor has no equivalent. All the subsidy in the world can’t change this geological fact.
As with wind and solar, so it seems it is with hydro power: a few rich get richer; everyone else gets poorer; property rights — in this case riparian rights — are trampled; time-honoured liberties are infringed; energy prices rise; and the environment, in the name of being saved, is needlessly damaged. But don’t expect to be reading this any time soon on the British Hydropower Association’s website.