U.K. hydro group hunts for major dam sites

Britain’s hydropower industry is hunting for scarce locations to build dams while the government focuses instead on wind and nuclear power in its efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“We’ve got plenty of rain but it’s the topography that doesn’t help,” said David Williams, chief executive of the British Hydropower Association (BHA), which is scouring the country for suitable valleys. “We don’t have the big mountain masses that they have in Norway.”

The government wants renewable energy to provide 20 percent of electricity by 2020 and controversially backed a new generation of nuclear power stations in its Energy Review, issued in July, as a way of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The review barely mentions hydropower.

“There are no plans that I know of for any more,” a spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) said. “Nobody has really come forward with plans for 40 years… It’s a strange state of affairs.”

Only one large hydropower scheme, with capacity of more than 20 MW, has surfaced in the last 40 years, the 100-MW Glendoe scheme, under construction near Loch Ness, Scotland. (HNN 6/27/06) A spokesman for Scottish and Southern Energy, which is building Glendoe, said most suitable land was used from 1940-1960.

BHA expects to find large hydro sites

Williams said he expects the survey being conducted by BHA to identify some large-scale opportunities.

“There’s no doubt that there will be potential large hydro schemes involving big dams,” he said.

Even if developers find suitable valleys, big hydro schemes struggle to get past environmental regulation at the U.K. and European Union level, while local opposition is usually strong.

“The main problems with hydro schemes are the environmental issues,” Williams said.

The BHA official said government support for green power had been a great help for small hydro schemes. He said the technology’s future would depend on whether the government changed its renewable energy incentives to benefit large hydro.

Government: Big dams not necessary

But a DTI spokesman said big dams were not deemed necessary and the government instead sees offshore wind power and nuclear power as the key to cutting emissions.

“Wind is the quick fix, really,” Williams said. “But the intermittency (of wind) can be taken up by conventional hydro or pumped storage.”

Williams said pumped-storage hydropower stations could complement new nuclear plants because pumped-storage plants use excess off-peak power produced by reactors to pump water into their upper reservoirs for release through generators when demand is high.

Hydropower contributed 70 percent of Britain’s renewable power in 1996 but the share had shrunk to about 45 percent by 2004, while its role in total power generation has remained about 1 percent, according to DTI data. Even Spain, which has much drier weather than Britain, produces about 10 percent of its power from hydro.

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