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Progress on Developing the Saddleworth Hydro Plant

Work is progressing on the 51 kW Saddleworth Hydro plant, the first high-head community-owned hydroelectric facility in England. Developing the facility will give the local community control over its energy supply, as well as income to invest in other renewable projects.

By Marie-Claire Kidd

Time is of the essence for the volunteers behind Saddleworth Community Hydro Industrial and Provident Society, which is working to develop a 51 kW hydroelectric plant. They have £343,000 (US$553,000) to spend before October 2013 and a turbine to install by next spring.

On their "to do" list is employing a project manager, securing planning permission, gaining permission from the Environment Agency and agreeing on a lease with landowner United Utilities. Saddleworth Community Hydro will then make agreements with contractors, with a goal to begin construction and installation in the autumn.

Saddleworth will be England's first high-head community-owned hydroelectric plant, using the 90 foot dam at the Dove Stone reservoir on Saddleworth Moor, near Oldham, Greater Manchester. A 51 kW Francis or crossflow turbine will generate some 170,000 kWh/year of electricity.

The aim is that this plant will be plugged in to the national grid next spring, generating an annual income of £15,700 ($25,300), with running costs of £9,000 ($14,500). It is estimated the scheme will save about 1,000 tonnes of CO2 per year.

Funding the project

Saddleworth Community Hydro has been supported by h2ope (Water Power Enterprises), a social enterprise that removes the risk from community energy projects by funding upfront costs such as legal fees, environmental consultants and design work. In Saddleworth's case, this has already amounted to almost £30,000 ($48,000).

Funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and Key Fund Yorkshire, h2ope has been instrumental in getting community energy schemes off the ground. It ran the share offer that helped Saddleworth Community Hydro raise the £120,000 ($194,000) it needed, but Saddleworth Community Hydro has now opted to pay h2ope off and manage the planning and construction phase of the scheme independently.

Tony Bywater, one of three volunteer directors spearheading the Saddleworth Hydro project, explains: "We want to be emancipated. It's a community project after all. Of course we'll be taking advice where we can. The main thing now is we need someone with the business know-how, we need a project manager. We've got money in the bank but nothing to show for it yet. On the whole, most of our shareholders aren't saying, ‘Where's our interest?' " he adds. "We're not putting ourselves into a position where we will be running into debt. That's the thing that cripples some enterprises."

But there is time pressure from another direction. Some £223,000 ($360,000) of the estimated total project cost of £343,000 ($553,000) is coming from Defra's Rural Carbon Challenge Fund and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development. These grants require that all the project bills be paid by October 2013, and the European Commission procurement process means it must put all contracts out for competitive tender.

Envirolink and the Energy Saving Trust are helping the society keep this process on track. "Over the summer, we'll be doing a lot of detailed planning with a view to getting a spade in the ground in autumn," Bywater says. "One possible disadvantage is that it might be slow over the winter, but it's only a small construction job. It's something like a small underground air raid shelter."

Bywater was among a group of residents who came up with the idea for the hydro facility back in 2008, as an alternative to a proposed wind scheme.

Understanding the setup

Water is an obvious resource on Saddleworth Moor. There are more than 20 reservoirs in the area, including Dove Stone. Sitting high in the Pennine hills, at the confluence point of the Chew and Greenfield valleys, it is a popular spot for walkers, climbers and nature lovers.

Dove Stone opened in 1967 to provide compensation water to the River Tame and, via a gravitational system, to the paper mill below. Since the mill's closure in 2001, the compensation water has flowed into the river. The hydro scheme will recommission the gravitational system and install a turbine to harness its energy.

Water coming through the pipeline at the foot of the dam will be channeled through a turbine-generator roughly the size of, and about as noisy as, a car engine, which will be housed underground. The directors say the scheme will be quiet and virtually invisible.

While there are other river-powered community hydropower projects in England, this will be the first to use a reservoir. This, the directors say, will make it more efficient and reliable, as it will have a consistent supply of water, rather than being reliant on rainfall.

Dove Stone Reservoir will supply water for the 51 kW Saddleworth Hydro facility when it begins operating next year.
Dove Stone Reservoir will supply water for the 51 kW Saddleworth Hydro facility when it begins operating next year.

Bywater was one of the last managers at the Robert Fletcher Paper Mill. "You were always aware of the force of the compensation water and how vital it was to the paper mill," he says. "It's marvellous that we can recommission what is a very effective gravitational system and, with the installation of a simple turbine, generate green electricity for years to come."

Saddleworth's wind power proposal was eventually abandoned, but the hydro idea gathered momentum. Local activists were encouraged by the infrastructure already available on the site, including the existing pipeline and, crucially, infrastructure used to power United Utilities' equipment, which meant there was a link to the national grid.

The residents visited Talybont-on-Usk Energy, which has been running a 36 kW hydroelectric turbine since 2006. Using a decommissioned turbine house at the bottom of Talybont Reservoir, this social enterprise sells the electricity it generates via renewable energy supplier Good Energy and invests the profits in local energy saving and sustainable living projects, such as a community car club with one electric car and one fueled by recycled vegetable oil.

Inspired by the Welsh scheme, the residents enlisted the help of h2ope, formed the Saddleworth Community Hydro Industrial and Provident Society, and commissioned a feasibility report from Telford Hart Associates, who were working with Inter Hydro Technology, a high-head hydro specialist.

A committed team of volunteer directors emerged, including Bywater. Andrew Thorne, a local solicitor with 40 years' experience, now semi-retired, and Bill Edwards — a retired telecommunications engineer who chaired the Oldham Environment Forum, was active in local Friends of the Earth and British Trust for Conservation Volunteers groups and chaired the steering group of the Oldham Partnership — completed the team.

For all three, generating funding for community projects is an important part of the package. Bywater says, "We were impressed by what Talybont-on-Usk Energy does, in terms of harnessing water power for the community and by the way they use the income."

The scheme went from strength to strength. United Utilities gave an in-principle agreement to its going ahead, subject to approval of the final design. Oldham Council — whose motto is "working for a co-operative borough" — put its weight behind the co-op, and the Saddleworth Community Hydro Industrial and Provident Society share offer raised more than £120,000 ($193,500), just outside the four month deadline it set.

The share scheme offers interest of up to 4% from year two. Surplus funds will be granted to local environmental and education projects.

The society will sell electricity to the national grid, receiving a fixed price per unit. It will also be paid under the government's Renewables Obligation Certificate scheme.

Output from the hydro plant will depend on how efficiently the power of the water is converted. h2ope says efficiencies of more than 90% are possible, but for small systems like Saddleworth Hydro, 60% to 80% is more realistic.

Progress and challenges

Rebecca Wills, independent adviser on environment and sustainability and author of "Co-operative Renewable Energy: A Guide to this Growing Sector," says the team's progress has been impressive but warns there are challenges to come. "Generally, from the experience of other hydro schemes, the planning process won't be plain sailing," she says. "It's a balancing act. You have to be sure it won't be detrimental to the environment. It's a great thing to do and this is a significant achievement, but it's still very difficult.

"If you've got an electricity scheme, you have to find a way to feed that electricity to the grid. At the moment, the infrastructure is designed to go in one direction, to take electricity from big power stations to houses and businesses. This takes power in the other direction. The network operators aren't always clear about how you connect to the grid. It causes them a headache. We still don't have an energy system that supports these schemes."

A network of advice and support organizations is available to help, including Co-operatives UK, the Centre for Sustainable Energy, Key Fund, Energy4All and the Government's community energy portal Community Energy Online.

"Saddleworth Community Hydro will have to negotiate around several different agencies and lots of different types of legislation," says Willis. "These schemes are expensive and one of the reasons is that it's so difficult. It would be easy if you were a big company, but it's difficult for a voluntary-led Industrial and Provident Society. We want the Department of Energy and Climate Change to bash a few heads together. Planners, Environment Agency permitters and network operators need to get round the table and find ways to make it easier for communities to move these schemes forward."

Bywater says the team is prepared for obstacles, including uncertainty about the turbine wiring and whether the existing water pipeline needs lining.

Willis adds that, despite the challenges, co-operatively-owned energy generation in the UK is vibrant. "The first co operatively-owned wind turbines started turning in 1997," she says. "Since then, over 7,000 investors have ploughed over £16 million into community-owned renewable energy. The market for large-scale, commercial renewables is well-established. At the other end of the scale, it's now relatively easy for individuals with a bit of money to invest in energy generation, thanks to the feed-in tariff. But the community level is still problematic.

"Holding the group together and keeping the enthusiasm to stick at it can be challenging, as is going through the maze of requirements from different agencies, and managing a construction project on this scale."

Edwards says the scheme gives the local community control over what is becoming an increasingly rare resource — energy. "When conventional power supplies are under pressure, I believe renewable energy schemes such as ours can help provide an alternative solution," he says. "The powerhouse will be unobtrusive, we won't be using up natural resources. There'll be no environmental damage to either the surrounding countryside or to the ecology of the reservoir.

"People are aware of the negative impacts of climate change and want to help reduce CO2 emissions," he says. "Supporting a community hydro scheme is a great way to demonstrate your commitment to the environment, raise funds for environmental projects and receive interest on your hard-earned savings."

Marie-Claire Kidd is a freelance journalist covering energy and other industries.


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