Renewable energy: Micro-hydro, Biomass, Solar Water Panel

| 1st June 2004
Unlike large dams, now widely acknowledged to be unsustainable and ineffective, micro-hydro involves the use of small mills and dams to provide clean energy and an alternative source of income for rural communities.

Renewable energy: Micro-hydro

Michro-hydro, unlike large dams, now widely acknowledged to be unsustainable and ineffective, involves the use of small mills and dams to provide clean energy and an alternative source of income for rural communities. In 1995 Miles and Gail Fursdon of Old Town Farm, Poundsgate, transformed the 1936 mill on their family’s farm into a micro-hydro power plant. With the help of eight friends, the Fursdons dug a 460 metre channel to transport water from a stream on their land to the new turbine, which they bought from the Czech republic. The turbine provides enough electricity to power not only their farm but also the three surrounding villages (about 80 households): some 400 megawatt hours a year which they sell back to the National Grid for £20,000. Having completely recouped their costs within five years the turbine has now become their primary source of income. Far from having to counter public opposition to their plan, the turbine has become a local attraction – with talks, slideshows and guided tours led for local businesses and schools.

Potential: Up to 15 per cent of the UK's 8,000 mill sites are thought to be suitable for similar schemes, potentially generating two per cent of the UK's electricity needs in the future.

Renewable energy: Biomass

Biomass technologies involve burning sustainable fuels such as wood byproducts, plant material, crop residues, or animal manure. Unlike fossil fuels, biomass is carbon neutral as the CO2 emitted while burning these materials is offset by that absorbed during the fuel’s growth. In Finland some 10 percent of electricity come from biomass, in the UK it’s less than one percent. Powys County Council has developed Wales' first community woodheating project in the village of Llanwddyn, using woodchip sourced from within a 20 mile radius to provide heat for homes, a school and a community centre. After realising that the school and community centre could be heated with locally sourced wood-fuel, the possibility for a community heating system was explored. When this was discovered to be possible, the council found out whether local residents would be interested in being heated in this way. Thirty of the 38 households have now signed up. The scheme will save around 20per cent on heating bills for the school, community centre and residents whilst saving 44 tonnes of carbon each year.

Potential: It has been calculated that using only UK land currently under set-aside Biomass could produce around 2.5GW or five per cent of the UK's current electricity needs.

Renewable energy: Solar Water Panels

Solar water heating systems are the most cost-effective renewable energy technology you can install in your home – with around 50,000 domestic systems already in place. Rather than producing electricity, solar water panels heat water directly – typically via panels installed on a roof which absorb the sun’s energy and transfer via coils connected to the hot water system. Solar water panels provide an average of 72 percent of a household’s hot water over the year – 100 percent in the summer and around 15 percent in winter. Retired civil engineer Richard Hegerty installed a solar water heater at his house in Essex in 1993. ‘When I retired I got the idea that I wanted to become a bit more environmentally aware,’ he explains. Since then his water heater has provided over 10,700 hours of free, unpolluting heat, for nothing other than the original cost of £4,935. Hegerty's panels are installed below his bedroom window. They measure just 1m by 80cm across. Inside, all the pipes are hidden away in the loft, and the pump is inaudible. ‘From the end of May through to October, we have silent, clean heat,’ says Hegerty, adding that it can also provide heat in winter. ‘People think they need hot sunny days,’ he explains. ‘But they don’t – it’s the sun’s light they rely upon. Last December I remember going downstairs to scrape the frost off the car windscreen, and when I came back inside the green light was on telling me the heater was picking up power from the sun.’

Potential: The sky really is the limit. A domestic solar water heater saves 0.4 to 0.6 tonnes of CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere each year. If every house in the UK had one fitted it would save around 10.5 million tonnes of CO2 each year. Government grants of £500 are available for solar panel installation from Clear Skies

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2004

More from this author