Environment Agency struggles with hydropower

John Osmond says regulation regime is slowing small-scale hydro-electric schemes aimed at reducing CO2 emissions across Wales

Environment Agency Wales, a keen exponent of measures to reduce CO2 emissions to tackle climate change, is struggling to prevent its bureaucratic procedures getting in the way of innovative renewable energy initiatives. The Agency’s Director Chris Mills said:

“We’ve had a massive increase in applications for water extraction licences for small hydro-power schemes and we’re putting a lot of resources into improving our processes.  In November 2009 we had a backlog of 45 hydro-power pre-applications in Wales and we’ve managed to reduced this to 11. Although we want more renewable energy there are environmental impacts, and we have to balance them out. We need to protect today’s environment while ensuring we have an environment in the future.”

An outstanding case is affecting the small community of about 200 people at Dyffryn Crawnon near Llangynidr in the Brecon Beacons National Park. They have been waiting for 15 months for the Environment Agency to agree a water abstraction licence to allow them to install a small hydro-power generator. This would have a maximum capacity of 16 kilowatts, enough energy to power about a dozen homes. With the Agency also asking for a fish survey of the small stream, it could be many months before the Dyffryn Crawnon generator is working to reduce CO2 emissions.

Involved is the small Nant-y-Wenynen stream that falls 200 metres in two kilometres, demonstrating the potential for renewable energy generation from a large number of similar water courses across the Brecon Beacons and, indeed, throughout much of upland Wales. Fed into the national grid the power generated would make the Dyffryn Crawnon community about £20,000 a year, with a four-year pay-back time for the installation’s capital costs. Quite apart from the CO2 emissions reduction, the benefits from such a steady flow of investment into local communities across Wales is obvious.

Only 60 years ago, aside from diesel generators, most of the electricity in the Brecon Beacons and throughout upland Wales came from hydro electric installations. Many communities like Dyffryn Crawnon have the remnants of these systems under their noses in the form of decommissioned reservoirs, old mills and run-of-the-river schemes. Yet, with the advent of the National Grid they were decommissioned and abandoned.

In recent years, however, there has been an upsurge of interest in hydropower as a means of generating income for farmers, as historical restoration projects and as a way for community groups to produce a steady income to resource their activities.

In the Brecon Beacons the movement is being led by the Green Valleys, a not-for-profit Community Interest Company based in Brecon. Earlier this year the Company, which is run by volunteers and part-timers, received a huge boost when it won a £300,000 award from the UK Government’s innovation agency Nesta. It was the only Welsh finalist in Nesta’s £1m Big Green Challenge competition for organisations involved in community-led initiatives tackling climate change.

As a result of actions taken during the period of the competition last year Green Valleys will reduce CO2 emissions in the Brecon Beacons National Park by between 370 and 435 tonnes per year, a reduction of around 20 per cent. This impact could increase in the coming years. Green Valleys has plans to install 40 hydro schemes over the next four years which could reduce emissions by up to 2,000 tonnes per year – the equivalent of 500 households successfully meeting the government’s 2020 target of a 34 per cent CO2 reduction many years early.

But this simply won’t happen if the Environment Agency’s bureaucracy continues to hold up progress. Its water abstraction licenses are designed to regulate large industrial users, not small-scale domestic hydro-electric initiatives like the one at Dyffryn Crawnon. Its fish surveys are meant to protect large rivers like the Usk, not small streams like Nany-y-Wenynen.

Wales Environment Agency Director Chris Mills said, “We are carrying out a review of the permitting process for small-scale hydropower on behalf of the Welsh Government and Defra. The aim is to consider options for reducing administrative burden in the permitting process”. He said the Environment Agency’s National Permitting Service has recently set up a team of 14 staff to work on hydropower applications to ensure quicker decisions, three of whom are working in Wales. And he added,

“We are working closely with Brecon Beacons National Park and the Green Valleys group to ensure that proposals for hydropower schemes are progressed as efficiently as possible. We will do everything within our remit to help to reduce CO2 emissions and enable us to tackle climate change. However, we have statutory responsibilities to protect the environment and that means that we have to give proper regard to the potential adverse impacts of hydropower schemes on fish, biodiversity and other river uses, as well as supporting green energy initiatives where these are sustainable. If we don’t do this we will be failing our duties and maybe rightly challenged by Countryside Council for Wales, NGOs and others.”

John Osmond is director of the IWA

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