Clear opportunities but major hurdles for small scale hydro development in North Yorkshire

Sandy Tod

North Yorkshire County Council’s (NYCC) report on the potential for hydro development on the county’s many rivers identifies the potential for developing these resources but states: “North Yorkshire has a large number of rivers and tributaries that could be used for the generation of small scale hydro-electric power. The rivers that would be best suited to this are the Wharfe, Nidd and Ure.”

The report concludes there are “clear opportunities” for the use of small scale hydro-electric plants in the county. However, it outlines major hurdles that communities would need to overcome before securing their own energy supply, such as complicated negotiations to secure the necessary permissions from landowners and agencies.

From studying the locally available natural resources of renewable power in Malhamdale, at the headwaters of the River Aire, and more recently, as a director of Settle Hydro Ltd, on the Ribble. I have experienced many of the hurdles mentioned in the NYCC report, plus general apathy (not mentioned).

Some of the factors which make difficult the development of small scale local hydro projects are listed below:

Geography and Hydrology

Uplands devoid of natural vegetation – no resistance to run-off – peatlands drained over the last century to raise sheep – no storage – leads to flash flooding. Lack of opportunities for storage means hydro schemes have to be run-of-river. Lack of storage capacity (reservoirs) to store spate flows, reduces potential output and encourages flooding downstream.


Unlike wind or solar power, rivers are used by multiple beneficiaries and abstraction has to be controlled by the Environment Agency (EA). Despite the fact that a hydro plant returns water to the river within a few metres of its abstraction point obtaining an Abstraction Licence, necessary to operate, is a long drawn out and highly technical process involving different departments of the EA.

Local opposition

Objectors include anglers who believe that hydro plants damage fish or prevent them from migration, despite numerous studies that don’t support their argument. Mill sites that would be suitable for small scale hydro are now mainly converted to residential accommodation. Noise perceived to be a problem – occasionally is when things go wrong. The proposed site may have a mill pond which will have been disused for many decades and formed its own eco-system and wildlife, which local residents are, understandably, unwilling to disturb.

Grid connection

All but the smallest, mainly off-grid, micro-hydro plants require connection to the 400v 3 phase grid.  In remote locations the strength of grid supply makes this impossible without expensive upgrades of the grid infrastructure. This can comprise a very large proportion of the cost of the project.

Operation and maintenance

Unlike solar panels, and to an extent wind turbines, hydro plants need a lot of supervision and maintenance. A maintenance contract incorporating a twice annual visit by suitably qualified and experience personnel is required to check operation, lubricate bearings and occasionally carry out major tasks such as servicing lower bearings of the turbine.

Volunteers are required to carry out daily maintenance to clear debris and leaves from the intake trash screen. Automatic mechanical alternatives would be too expensive and would present an additional maintenance load.

At Settle we have come across many schemes around the country where, having struggled to get their scheme up and running are suffering from “operational fatigue”, and can’t get recruits to join the organization and take over its running, after the initial “buzz” of getting the project going wears out.


Resolving these problems could provide benefits which would offset some of the initial costs of individual projects. Trying to do this on a project by project basis merely multiplies the agony.

Combining project ownership and operation would maximize locally available talent and enthusiasm, as well as making savings in the costs of maintenance, spares holdings.

A possible solution would be to tackle the issue at river catchment basis. This could be done in co-operation with the Rivers trusts to bring about wider environmental benefits to the catchment area. See:

Being associated with a large group like this would help with development and insure that hydro projects were “in tune” with other environmental works being tackled by the various agencies.

Upland habitat restoration

Tree planting and peatland restoration in the uplands is being carried out and is essential for flood prevention further downstream, by slowing down the rate of run-off and eliminating flash flooding. Along with this can be river bank restoration, the introduction of “leaky dams” and washlands to take excess floodwater, including the re-introduction of beavers, increasing storage within the catchment and reducing flash flooding. Habitat restoration will have a beneficial effect on small scale hydro installations in the long term.

Overall river basin management

An overall catchment management plan, setting the basic principles for all reverine users and interests would reduce the bureaucratic nightmare of dealing with the EA, who are underfunded and under staffed.

Grid extension

The increase in usage of Electrical Vehicles (EVs) will require more robust grid connections to rural communities, this will make possible, the connection of local small to medium scale Renewable Energy (RE) schemes including wind turbines, solar panels and hydro plants. An overall development plan is needed to encourage these developments to take place.

An alternative – in the National Park, say, would be to design local microgrids with their own storage systems, batteries or possibly pumped storage in suitable areas. These local RE systems would supply relatively isolated rural communities. This would fulfil the Nat Park Authority’s remit of discouraging urban sprawl, by confining the size of the community to suit the availability of renewable sources of low carbon energy locally.

Operation and maintenance, costing, etc.

A holistic approach to developing the available resources of a river catchment would bring together and share people with the right talent and energy to develop a hydro scheme, and co-operation with the Rivers Trusts would maximize the whole benefit to the region.

Developing all the potential small schemes in a catchment would bring benefits of scale, enable a progressive linear development, avoiding waste of resources, and “re-inventing the wheel” which at present goes on with the current system of ad hoc developments. It would also allow a small group of enthusiasts to carry on the running and maintenance of a string of small schemes.

A catchment based approach would enable the provision of grid infrastructure to be co-ordinated within the plan for the benefit of all – EV car users and small scale industry – such as forestry – as well as hydro operators.

A river catchment based approach

A river catchment is a natural boundary. It defines an area with common geographical attributes, such as soils, topography, weather and people. As such it lends itself to being a development boundary, within the County of North Yorkshire which, in addition to the Wharfe, Nidd and Ure, includes the Upper Aire, and Ribble catchments.

To change our economy from fossil fuel based to one based on renewable energy, we need to start at the grass roots and imagine a rerun of the 19th and 20th century development as if coal and steam power hadn’t been invented.

Press coverage for the report may be found at:

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