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Hydro power - the forgotten renewable energy generator?

Should we planning a 'wet revolution' when thinking about the nation's energy needs? The Highland Council's Michael Kordas says the many small hydroelectric schemes in Scotland could provide an example to other parts of the UK

Michael Kordas"Wind farm blight is industrialising our countryside…moaning seagull slicers…Wurzels wage war on windfarms…" (Daily Mail 2013-14)
The difficulties in balancing the ambitious targets for renewable energy generation across Britain with protection and enhancement of the natural heritage resource is an aspect of planning which is never far from the mainstream media, particularly in the case of wind energy. However, much less focussed in the public eye has been the development of hydroelectric power.
The Highland Council’s Lochaber Area has been on the frontline of a boom in small and micro hydroelectric proposals in Scotland in recent years. This situation is unsurprising considering the rugged terrain, lack of water shortages and historical context. The north of Scotland saw 10 major schemes completed from 1945-1975 under the auspices of the North of Scotland Hydro Electric Board.
The current landscape is very different, with the majority of HEP schemes being delivered on a local scale of 2MW or less, sometimes not feeding into the grid at all. The nature of hydroelectricity generation where the essential plant may be more easily concealed underground with fewer impacts on the scenery also appears to contribute to surprisingly few objections on hydroelectric planning applications, despite the world famous scenery located within the area, including the Great Glen, Rannoch Moor, Ben Nevis and Glenfinnan.

"While Lochaber provides perhaps the perfect evironment, hyrdo power is exportable to otehr settings, and teh technology and infrastructure is constantly developing"

However, this does not mean that assessment is simple. Supporting infrastructure, such as access tracks, needs to be carefully considered to avoid permanently scarring the landscape. Turbine houses and other ancillary buildings require design sympathetic to the local built heritage. Multi disciplinary issues are also raised through the potential impacts on the water environment which is controlled through the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency’s licensing processes. There are also a number of potential impacts on protected species to consider, which requires developers to show detailed mitigation measures.
While Lochaber provides perhaps the perfect environment, hydro power is exportable to other settings; the technology and infrastructure is constantly developing, particularly with respect to community level schemes. As the capacity of hydroelectricity to cater for our energy demands grows, so too does a need for ‘capacity building’ between scheme developers and planning authorities, in streamlining the application and decision process.
The current surge of demand and advancements in hydro technology mean now is the time for practitioners to focus on these developments and consider the tools and resources required.
Michael Kordas is a planner with the Highland Council

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