New Hydropower could power 1.5 per cent of UK

Report identifies thousands of potential small-scale hydropower sites in English and Welsh rivers that could power 850,000 homes

Thousands of small-scale hydroelectric schemes could power 850,000 homes and produce 1.5 per cent of the UK's electricity needs, according to an Environment Agency study (EA) published today (pdf).

The agency mapped the energy hotspots of English and Welsh rivers and identified almost 26,000 locations where turbines could be installed to generate electricity from the water.

Not all those sites could be developed, as some could damage the environment or are in places with practical constraints, such as difficulty accessing the local electricity grid.

Around half the sites are in environmentally sensitive areas and would need fish-friendly measures such as screens to stop fish getting killed by turbines.

But the EA said that with many of the potential locations in areas where humans have interfered with the natural landscape - for example by putting in a weir - there is potential to generate green electricity and improve the local environment at the same time.

Sensitively designed schemes - including fish passes, enabling species such as salmon to navigate around the turbine or other technology - could provide a "win-win" situation for the environment in more than 4,000 areas.

The rivers Severn, Thames, Aire and Neath are strong contenders for a hydroelectric scheme according to the study.

Small-scale hydropower will also benefit from government subsidies which will pay people to generate small-scale green energy, making investment in the green energy source more attractive.

Under the "feed-in tariff" scheme, which comes in at the beginning of April, hydropower schemes could qualify for up to 20p for every kilowatt hour of hydroelectricity produced.

A medium-sized scheme costing £100,000 to £150,000 to set up and providing enough electricity to power 32 homes, could receive around £25,000 a year in subsidies, the Environment Agency estimates.

Tony Grayling, head of climate change and sustainable development at the Environment Agency, said: "Some hydropower schemes have the potential to deliver low-carbon electricity and improve the local environment for wildlife, for example by improving fish migration."

"But there will inevitably be some sites where the risk to the environment outweighs the benefits of power generation."

He said there was increasing interest in small-scale hydroelectric plants, with a rise in applications from around 10 a year in the past to 80 last year, and further growth is expected with new subsidies for green power.

A system of grants for providing fish passes could help unlock the potential of small-scale hydropower in England and Wales, the study suggests.

Paul Knight, chief executive of the Salmon and Trout Association, said: "Poorly designed hydropower systems can cause damage to the river environment and its dependent species, so we are pleased to see that the report recommends that fish passes are used as a matter of course in all new hydropower installations."

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