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CASE STUDY: setting up a community micro-hydroelectric project

Claire Baylis

1st June, 2009

The UK’s first community-funded hydroelectric scheme, Torrs Hydro is generating green energy as well as interest in H2O power. Claire Baylis meets the man behind it

You can see it generating electricity

Unless you go weak-kneed at the mere glimpse of a windmill, energy generation probably isn’t something you’d readily associate with romantic ambience. With its dramatic ageing archways, rustling trees and rushing water, however – complete with a few quacking mallards – the setting for a small-scale hydroelectric scheme in New Mills, Derbyshire, is certainly atmospheric.

Harnessing power from the river Goyt, the scheme can be found by Torr Weir, on what was once the site of Torr Mill, which burned down in 1912. Its key components – a giant reverse Archimedean screw nicknamed ‘Archie’, a ‘fish pass’ and a neat little engine house – take up a small amount of space, but are attracting growing attention on a regional and national scale.

In terms of how the system works, 43-year old Richard Body, an IT contractor and one of the scheme’s four unpaid founding directors, puts it simply: ‘Water obviously wants to go downwards, so as it flows into the screw, the weight of the water naturally twists it’. The screw turns at 30 revolutions per minute, and when it reaches the right speed the generator kicks in and electricity generation begins. Then – keeping it local with a capital ‘L’ – the electricity is converted from DC to AC and wired direct to the nearby Co-op supermarket.

Getting started

Richard played a key role in getting the whole project off the ground, having heard about the potential arrival of hydro via a small article in the local paper in 2006. ‘At that point, Water Power Enterprises was talking to the town council about it,’ he explains. A social enterprise dedicated to setting up small-scale hydro schemes, Water Power Enterprises (WPE) was looking for potential sites in the north-west and north-east, and had heard New Mills might be suitable.

On hearing that WPE managing director Steve Welsh was due to present to the council, Richard invited himself along. ‘As coordinator of the local Friends of the Earth (FOE) group, I wanted to offer our support,’ he says. Once there, he saw footage of a similar hydro scheme in Germany and was sold on the technology. Reintroducing hydropower locally just made sense, he says: ‘Everyone must walk past a river at some point and think, “There must be so much energy in there, if only you could harness some of it”’. At this stage WPE still had to decide how such a project could be funded. It also had to get the town council, who owned the land, to agree to a lease.

Buy-in from locals was another key factor, so in January 2007, WPE hosted an exhibition at the local Heritage Centre to gauge public reaction. Over two days, 150 people registered their support. Keen to keep up momentum, Richard’s FoE group hosted another meeting with WPE, for those interested in finding out more. It proved a pivotal gathering. ‘At the end of that meeting we weren’t very happy about what had been said about ownership,’ explains Richard, i.e. that the scheme would potentially be owned by WPE. ‘The community would benefit, but “in some way as yet undefined”.’

Unhappy with such ‘haziness’, a local steering group was set up to decide what the next steps would be. It was attended by renewable energy advocate Maggie Cole, 53, who also became a director. She was keen to see things progress, but also for them to do so in the right way. ‘I felt it was really important that we did things in an equitable fashion for the people who lived here,’ she says. ‘We’re a little town, we’ve given an awful lot, haven’t got very much and certainly don’t want people to take what we’ve got left.’ By the end of their second meeting, the group had identified two key things they wanted. ‘First, we, the locals, wanted to own the hydroelectric scheme,’ says Richard. “Second, we wanted all benefits to come to the local community.’

They reported back to WPE and waited. Thankfully, utterly open to the idea of community ownership, WPE was more than happy. ‘It fitted right in with our values,’ says Steve Welsh. So WPE returned to New Mills with a plan, suggesting the scheme be set up as an Industrial and Provident Society (IPS), defined by the Financial Services Authority as ‘an organisation conducting an industry, business or trade, either as a co-operative or for the benefit of the community’. The idea went down well.

‘The basic concept of an IPS is very democratic,’ says Richard. ‘It’s one person, one vote, irrespective of the number of shares you hold. The rules still give directors freedom to be able to run the business, but they’re ultimately answerable to shareholders.’

On 20 September 2007, he, Maggie and two others signed up as directors. Torrs Hydro New Mills Ltd was born.

Splashing the cash

By late 2007, with the lease for the land, planning permission and an abstraction licence in the bag, it was time to start raising cash. ‘One of the great things about an IPS, in terms of community ownership, is that you can write a prospectus or “invitation to invest”, which is a fairly low-cost way of getting money,’ says Richard. So once they had written the thing and had it verified by lawyers, they were good to go. The prospectus launched in November 2007. ‘It said we wanted a total of £226,000,’ says Richard, ‘£126,000 in shares, with a minimum shareholding of £250, then £75,000 in grants and £25,000 as a loan. At the time the only grant we had was £15,000 from the Peak District Sustainable Development Fund.’

The prospectus would remain open until the end of January and initially things were slow, but in the last 10 days came a rush. ‘We had another exhibition at the Heritage Centre and people just kept coming up to me with cheques,’ says Richard. ‘Each day I’d get applications by post, too.’ They also ran “Torrs Tours” at the weekend for potential investors.

The response was heartening, says Maggie Cole, but what really surprised them were the addresses on share applications. ‘They came from the community housing estates as well as the big houses and smaller terraced ones,’ she says. ‘So although people were saying, “It’s just going to be snobs who live in so-and-so” it wasn’t at all. In fact very few of those did.’

As well as pooling local cash, Richard says they did ‘spectacularly better’ than expected on grants, pulling in around £165,000 and also taking out a £70,000 loan, all necessary as the project ended up costing more than predicted.

Chris Shearlock, sustainable development manager for the Co-operative Group, which provided a grant as well as agreeing to buy the electricity generated, says the scheme proved irresistible: ‘It’s co-operatively owned and involved in fighting climate change, so ticks two really important boxes for us’.

A screw loose

With enough money raised, it was all systems go. The screw was ordered and the building phase was managed by WPE, with Western Renewable Energy (www.westernrenew.co.uk) as the main contractor. Construction began in March 2008, a stage that benefited the local community in itself, with 60 per cent of construction costs spent locally. Step one, says Richard, was to dig ‘a very big hole’, with an archaeological survey as part of the ongoing process. Then came the concrete walls and base to form the structure, while a ‘fish pass’ was also incorporated into the design. Paid for by the Environment Agency, it runs adjacent to the screw and encourages fish to travel up the river. ‘Archie’ arrived next, attracting around 300 onlookers, then the engine house and an amphitheatre, created using stones from the original mill.

With building completed, the locals finally took ownership on 4 September last year. Celebrations were short-lived, however.

‘That night we had a huge downpour,’ says Richard. ‘Too much water is unfortunately worse than not enough, because it brings lots of silt with it. So the screw generated energy briefly then silt blocked everything up. A couple of the directors had to go into the river, clear it away and get the thing running again.’

But get it running they did. Indeed, when it’s working, it’s a pretty efficient system. ‘The screw delivers 70 kilowatts (kW) of raw power,’ Richard explains, though that does drop to an optimum of 63kW after it’s gone through the gearbox and generator, losing a little more travelling to the Co-op. Typically, it sits somewhere between 40 and 50kW.

To-date the screw has generated 142,000 units, or kilowatt hours, of energy. On average it produces 60-70 per cent of the Co-op’s electricity needs over a 24-hour period, and enough excess to sell back to the grid, which happens regularly during the night when the Co-op is shut.

Working with the right water levels is crucial, of course. Environment Agency requirements mean the screw can only be used if the river’s water level is 31mm at the far end of the weir – ‘so when it’s too low, the sluice gate is shut,’ says Richard. If water’s too high it can also cause problems, though, and not just because of the silt factor: ‘Because the river’s narrower after the weir, the water level there rises more and the screw can’t turn as quickly because it’s moving standing water’.

Teething troubles aside, the group is still hopeful on the cash-flow front. Richard explains that they’re working on the assumption the scheme will generate around 240,000 units per year, which he equates to roughly £24,000 of electricity. As for profits to spend locally, they hope for £2,000- £3,000 per year. ‘But when the loan’s paid off there’ll be an extra £10,000 annually, so the benefit really starts kicking in,’ he says. How profits are spent will be decided by shareholders, although boosting environmental sustainability will play a part. ‘It could, for example, go towards insulation of community buildings or educational materials.’

New Mills to nationwide?
For now, they need to concentrate on keeping things running smoothly. A voluntary maintenance team is currently responsible for daily checks, which, says Maggie, can take anything from 10 minutes to two hours. ‘You might just check the instrumentation, make a note in the log, maybe pull a couple of sticks out of the fish pass,’ she says. ‘But if there’s a lot of stuff in the intake, you may spend an hour with at least one person in the water.’

Maggie admits it’s been hard work and that setbacks have left her ‘cheesed off’ at times, but things should get easier. ‘For example, I thought autumn leaves floated on the water – they don’t. When they’re in moving water, they churn around and you end up with football-sized lumps. But we know that now, so come autumn we’ll know to do a particular type of clearing-out every day. We’ll be ready.’

Ultimately, the benefits appear to outweigh the hard slog: the scheme not only provides the community with a new revenue stream and a boost to tourism, but also educational benefits. In terms of bigging up green power, one of great things about the screw is that it’s so visible and is capturing the imaginations of so many. ‘You can see it generating electricity,’ says Richard. ‘We’re constantly visited by people looking to do something similar.’

Indeed, WPE has already set up a similar project in Settle, in the Yorkshire Dales, with construction due to start this month. ‘We hope to do a site at Huddersfield this year too,’ says Steve Welsh. ‘There’s a huge demand from local communities. We’ve already run five free workshops about setting one of these things up, with people attending from 31 different community groups.’

Chris Shearlock agrees that the New Mills scheme is replicable elsewhere – ‘There are thousands of weirs like that, particularly in the north of England’ – and the Co-op has given WPE a grant to help with development. It would also consider buying the electricity produced, though it’s unlikely that elecricity would be wired direct to stores à la New Mills – it’s an expensive process. ‘We’d probably buy back a proportional amount from a supply company that has a contract with the hydro scheme,’ he says.

The Government’s introduction of feed-in tariffs (FITs) could obviously fuel growth of small-scale projects further. ‘It would make a phenomenal difference,’ says Richard Body. ‘If we were building the scheme now and knew, ‘the scheme provides the community with a new revenue stream, a boost to tourism and educational benefits’ for example, that instead of getting 10p a unit we’d get 20p from year one, it would make the business case, going to a bank, so much easier.’

Friendly bankers aside, in terms of public buy-in alone, Torrs Hydro gives real reason for optimism. The number of shareholders has reached 220, 55 per cent of whom are locals, while most of the rest have a connection to the area. Together, they own just less than £126,000 of shares. ‘I thought a lot of people would have said, “A hydroelectric scheme? What will that do for us?” but they didn’t,’ Richard adds. ‘People understand renewable energy is free and it’s green. The best bit is that it’s duplicating, opening people’s minds, making them see it is possible.’

www.torrshydro.co.uk
www.h2ope.org.uk

Claire Baylis is a freelance journalist

 

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