- Schumacher’s 1973 book explained ‘Small is Beautiful’– localised, diverse small scale economic development, for a truly sustainable economy. Particularly the financial transparency this enables and creation of real wealth within a local context; ideal for small embedded renewable energy systems. But we are a long way from achieving this; it is still very much a case that, in Government policy terms worldwide, ‘Big is Beautiful’.
Big Hydropower, as an example, has often catastrophic effects. High dams, storing large volumes of water, cause severe environmental and social problems. Displacement of communities with lack of proper compensation; disruption of fish passage & other negative biodiversity effects; accumulation of silts & methane gas; maybe even major earthquakes caused by the weight of water. Who really benefits from such projects?
So different from Small or Micro Hydropower. A century ago over 20,000 UK run-of-river turbines co-existed very well on weirs alongside ... prolific fisheries (one of 40 UK manufacturers had installed 6,000 turbines by 1900); with non-existent fish protection (6 inch spaced turbine intake screens), or fish passes, and much unregulated industrial pollution – yet rivers teemed with salmon, trout & eels.
By the 1960s, the sole remaining UK manufacturer made only Big Hydro, suggesting ‘you might as well look for faeries in your garden as try to develop river hydro.’
- Priorities had changed; hydrocarbon or nuclear power, applied on a big scale, was the preferred national source of power – with both using vast quantities of cooling water, causing severe thermal and biodiversity effects, and many unaccounted costs. Attention to climate change has allowed small hydropower a minor comeback; but rather than being welcomed by the Environment Agency as a sustainable solution it is hamstrung by bureaucratic obstacles making installations often uneconomic, if not impossible.
It need not be this way. At one of the many water mills in Gloucestershire, a small, expensive 25kW continental turbine was installed 4 decades ago, long paid for itself and continues to churn out electricity.
Effectively, a ‘real money printing press’ where the secondary income from engineering (with the accumulated benefit of manufacturing for years with the lowest cost power available) is £££s added value every year, many jobs created and prolific biodiversity — yet the turbine type here is effectively now banned by Environment Agency, because it ‘harms fish.’
At another nearby mill – which the Local Authority renovated as its offices 2 decades ago – the weir was not developed; the neglected 100kW capacity here would have earned £1.4 million since.
- The losses in the county, had all 500 sites been operating, is several £100s million; even this a small reflection of the economic losses - closer to £Billions resulting from the lost use of this cheap power within the local economy, over the time the vital UN Agenda 21 (LA21) sustainability protocol has been in place.
The Environment Agency has a discreet agenda in accommodating corporate requirements even if they directly oppose community or fishes Interests. In EA own words, ‘small hydropower sterilises rivers for our other uses.’ When a license for a small turbine is granted, it prevents subsequent upstream licensing; eg for short term fracking extraction. What would be your choice here, a proven source of power that will supply for ever – or a short term gain of dubious provenance and potential for catastrophe?
A small turbine acts as a great ‘sleeping policeman’ protecting river flows by way of its licence. Also guarding against pollution, enabling better reporting (while constantly removing trash and plastics that would otherwise go on to sea). It also by necessity funds the maintenance of the river around the mill, vital for flood control. Yet draconian and ill-informed EA regulation make it as difficult as possible to develop most UK small river hydro sites; quite intentionally it appears.
- Traditional turbines powerfully macerate (and some also aerate) the suspended solids in river flows to enable natural remediation of toxins that are the biggest harm for biodiversity (eg pathogens, pesticides, anthelmintics etc); it is mainly unregulated agrochemical farming that has destroyed our fisheries – not turbines or even weirs.